Category Archives: Video Game

Adventure Game April: Syberia III

Nothing like having a scoop. A year or so after discovering the charming and memorable adventure games Syberia and Syberia II, I get the opportunity to play and comment on the long, long awaited third installment of the franchise when it’s fresh.


To recap, Syberia I and II is the story of Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer sent to Europe to oversee the sale of a factory specializing in automatons, clockwork robots that were once the envy of the world. Kate has to track down the last heir to the factory, the aged genius Hans Voralberg, famed for the quality, artistry, and positive humanity of his automatons. Befriending the automaton Oscar, Kate follows the trail Hans has left across Eurasia, working around intricate machines, mysterious ruins, and sinister enemies to reach the Youkol tribe, and beyond, the gateway to the island of Syberia, last stronghold of mammoths and Hans’ lifelong dream.

Perhaps more significant, however, is how Kate herself transforms by degrees from a superficial careerist into a passionate, starry-eyed adventuress, casting off the shallow life in the big city and seeing the world, believing in dreams and making her way in all sorts of surroundings.

Since Syberia III came out on Thursday, we get to continue Kate’s voyages. Having apparently returned from Syberia Island barely alive, Kate is recovered and nursed back to health by the Youkols, and she joins them on the fraught traditional migration of their herd of giant snow ostriches.

Okay, what? I though the Youkols’ culture revolved around mammoths, if only as a distant memory. Where the heck did snow ostriches come from? For that matter, what’s a snow ostrich? They sort of resemble prehistoric gastornithids, as rendered by Jim Henson. We already had the youkis, the bear-seal-dog hybrid creatures, but as something central to their culture, these seem out of left field. Whatever, if I can cope with mammoths, youkis and man-eating Arctic penguins in the first games, I can deal with snow ostriches. Moving on…

The traditional migration to the sacred breeding grounds of the ostriches is hampered with trouble, and Kate must overcome meddling officials who think the Youkols are riff-raff who should be made to settle down and become labourers and use her modern knowledge to help them steer through a Chernobyl-esque nuclear disaster zone. At the same time, Kate herself is pursued by a Russian colonel with his own agenda, and by Cantin, the private eye her old law firm sent on her track in Syberia II. She finds allies, like the old clockmaker, his granddaughter, a broken and penitent ferry captain, and the mysterious half-Youkol girl living almost wild in the ruins of an Olympic complex, as well as the Youkol shaman, and Kurk, the young, spirit-appointed guide of the migration.

With original Syberia auteur Benoit Sokal in charge, it’s easy to recognize the pattern of Syberia: a linear progression between different sites, solving puzzles and persuading characters to advance the quest. Having spent the past two games getting to know Kate’s character, we now have some little power to shape that character ourselves. The dialogue system works essentially the same way as before, with topics to go through to get all the information, but when you have to persuade or explain yourself to somebody, you’re given a Mass Effect-style choice of confrontational, gentle, or whatever others suit the situation. Using the blunt approach generally makes things harder to achieve, but as a character driven game, this little element of roleplaying both shapes Kate in your mind and makes the dialogue itself a bit of a puzzle.

I’m pleased to say the puzzles themselves are much better. Maybe it’s practice but I found Syberia III more intuitive than the last two. Each one is a little step in advancing your progress that is helped with a grasp of logic, physics and a little general knowledge. The controls are neat: rather than select, say, a screwdriver from your inventory and click on the screw to undo it, you actually have to spin the cursor to simulate turning the screwdriver! The game did warn me going in that a controller would make this easier than a mouse, but once I understood the basic tenets of the system, I found it easy enough.

The movement controls have changed. In the first two you moved Kate around by clicking and letting her walk to where you clicked, a la strategy games. Now you steer her around with the W-A-S-D keys. Admittedly, the mostly static camera positions are still there and can place Kate quite far away from you, and it can get fiddly if you move offscreen and then in the new screen angle the axis of movement changes, which can cause her to abruptly change direction if you’re not careful. But it’s no worse than the controls in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I just think Kate should run all the time. She walks so slowly that not holding the run button is pointless, but it’s also awkward to do.

That said, taking the time to enjoy the game environments is worthwhile. The Youkol camp, Valsembor on the lake, the ruined amusement park and all the others are just stunning, with the upgraded graphics engine working for it in a big way. Plus, when exploring, the game will subtly highlight interactive points and objects you get close to, so that you have to search carefully with less of the needle-in-a-haystack feeling of the first games. The environments are further enhanced by the music, which is better than the last games. The music in those wasn’t bad by any means, but it tended to crescendo during dialogue and drown it out, and I ended up turning it off. I left it on far more often in Syberia III. My Dad once joked that he must have been Armenian in a previous life, because of how moving he finds the sound of the duduk. I think I have a similar relationship with Mongolian throat singing.

My primary complaint is that the lavish environments – particularly Valsembor and the Olympic complex – are too big. This wasn’t the Obduction thing where the environment would load for half an hour and then crash after ten seconds, but in addition to taking up an astonishing amount of my hard drive, I periodically got lost in the bigger environments. I also had to take the graphics settings down a peg because they were making my processor wheeze a bit. One of the few times I had to check a walkthrough was because I simply couldn’t find an object I needed in the vastness. Being lavish and being tightly designed are not mutually exclusive – the Youkol camp in this game is gorgeous; Barrockstadt in Syberia I and the monastery in Syberia II bear out that premise. Some of the environments here seem huge in a way that prioritizes realism over practicality, and result in you staying in any one environment long enough to get a little sick of it. The music’s better orchestrated and less intrusive than in the previous games, but in the long stays in each environment, you listen to each piece an awful lot.

The only really bad habit that’s carried over from the old games is the puzzles can pile up. Getting the ferry going is particularly tiresome for this – the captain will tell you ‘go fix this so we can get underway’ and when you’ve done it and report back he’ll say ‘okay, now go fix this other thing I haven’t even mentioned.’ Each puzzle so bred is pretty clever, but especially in the ferry situation it felt like we were delaying the story rather than contributing to it.

The main complaint you’ll hear from the internet hive is regarding the lip syncing. The facial animations are pretty good, actually, but the mouth movements in dialogue are indeed very clunky – I think. I don’t know for sure if the lip sync is bad or just bad in English – Benoit Sokal is Belgian and developer Microids is based in Paris so maybe it’d look better if I reset to French. It would be petty to call that a deal-breaker, especially considering the plastic marionette look of the previous games. The cartoonishness of the character design has wound back to align with more realistic graphics. Kate, Kurk, and a few others benefit enormously – despite her overall resemblance to Lara Croft, Kate doesn’t have ridiculously huge breasts and actually dresses for the weather – but some of the more cartoony-looking characters end up in the uncanny valley somewhat.

I’m not really all that perturbed by how their mouths move so much as with what they’re saying. I have to grudgingly agree with the mob is that the voice acting is, at best, mediocre. The dialogue is good, to be sure, but the voice actors are speaking the lines without actually acting. Not all of them – Kate, thankfully, Kurk, Shaman Ayawaska, Captain Obo and some other performances are on par with previous games. But a lot of them speak flatly with no intonation – the Russian Colonel is really bad – like they’re reciting the lines but not reading them. Which might explain why nobody caught the occasional hiccup in the English translation. The voices themselves often don’t match the characters. Cantin returns having completely lost his New York accent, and Steiner, despite being old enough to have an adult granddaughter and a dodgy heart, has no roughness or weight of years in his voice; he sounds younger than I do!

The worldbuilding in this series was always pretty whimsical, like Syberia I blending clockwork, cossacks and cellular phones. I can detect a few oddities here, like Kate’s varying faculty with languages. The Youkols are the source of a lot of this – their puzzling physique, but also their lifestyle. Sokal might have benefited from an anthropology textbook or two. In addition to the ostriches coming out of nowhere, there’s little in their material culture that reflects their importance, and the Youkols’ lifestyle is depicted inconsistently; they’re described as nomadic, but the village in Syberia II looks permanent, like a Pueblo made of ice, and Kurk mentions that snow ostrich manure is used as a crop fertilizer. What crops? Nomads don’t grow crops, and even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in the high Arctic!

I’m not sure whether I ought to be offended by the Youkols or not. You’re not being invited to laugh at them, but they are a little ridiculous. I don’t have the faintest idea where Sokal got the idea that they should look like obese Inuit Hobbits. The townspeople call them thieves – standard irrational bigotry – but then I find a computer mouse among the Shaman’s personal effects for some reason. At least now they have more words in their language than ‘took-took.’ Plus they’re a mashup of indigenous cultures. Their dress, to my relatively untrained eye, codes as a mix of Inuit and Mongolian, the Spirit Mask in Syberia II looked like it was made in British Columbia, and they use dreamcatchers, a practice originating with the Ojibwe people of Eastern North America. All their talk of what the spirits want seems cliched. There’s also a bit of a white savior dynamic with Kate as the one who has to fix everything.

She still sounds skeptical about supernatural talk even now, which seems inappropriate given her own spiritual experiences and every improbable thing she’s heard about being true, but she does take her cues from the Youkols, she’s not leading them. There is great resonance in the scenario of the nomads being harassed, attacked or fenced in by modern borders, commerce and sensibilities, which has historical basis on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, and there’s evidence of the harm done at the Olympic complex which is heartbreaking.

I would say that narratively the thing that bothers me about Syberia III is that it seems oddly disconnected from Syberia II, like there’s another story in between that’s missing. Kate found a temperate island in the high Arctic with mammoths, but that seems not to be important anymore. How did she get back? What was she doing where the Youkols found her? How does Syberia exist? She remarks that the Youkols have made her one of them, but it would have been nice if they’d said that at some point, given her an initiation or something. Maybe it’s me, ’cause I’m working on a fanfiction dealing with this exactly, but it feels like there was a lot of material supplied by Syberia II that Syberia III isn’t using.

The one part of her past that does seem to be relevant is the one that stuck out to me in Syberia I: she gets the contract signed before heading off on the quest with Hans and Oscar, but doesn’t send it back. I still don’t know why she didn’t just fax the damn thing with her resignation letter first. Now, it’s claimed, she’s a wanted woman for stealing the contract and causing mayhem on Russian soil, which rather reinforces the sense that she was kind of irresponsible.

Another interesting difference between this game and the last is that, in Syberia II, Kate was running toward something – Syberia Island – and now she seems to be running away. Whereas Cantin was never really a threat in Syberia II, and seemed to think he was trying to help Kate for her boss and family, he’s more obviously villainous this time: condescending to her and smugly tying her up at the first opportunity. This might represent an attempt to compensate for the negative reading of Kate’s actions in Syberia I: I have a hunch Cantin is lying about her being wanted. He claims Kate’s being sought by the US Department of Justice, but as Kate herself points out, the DOJ wouldn’t send a private detective. The way he and the doctors keep trying to insist she really doesn’t want to do this or that, and the fact that the doctors are in cahoots with both Cantin and the Colonel, suggest this is a bigger plot, and understanding and evading the pursuers seems to be more the focus of her story than the destination of the migration.

Kate continues her trend of asserting her independence and determination, not taking being locked up, tied up, gaslighted or hunted lying down for one second, using her wits and her good heart at every turn. At the same time, her pursuers cast their shadow, she’s left a lot of new friends in her wake with stakes of their own in what happens, and it’s implied that the consequences of turning her back on home and family, be they personal, political or legal, are still to be faced. Certainly they’re facing far darker times than the first games. There’s no combat in these games, of course, but what violence there is, even when Kate has to break a window to get a puzzle piece and cuts herself, becomes somehow more upsetting than a thousand defeats in XCOM or Mass Effect.
Like in the last games, I’ve grown to really care about Kate, Kurk, and the other characters. I think more dialogue would have done a better job, but the job is nevertheless done, and now I can’t wait to see what happens.

Because I don’t know what happens, and this is where it gets really bizarre. At the climax of the migration, just when they’re nearly out of reach of the bad guys, with Kate risking her very life to give the Youkols a chance…the game ends, cut to credits.

For a wild moment, I thought some kind of glitch had triggered the credits early, so I went back and tried again. Same result. We’d introduced the characters and conflicts and then ended the game just as they got rolling! Syberia I and II were originally intended to be one game, so probably Syberia IV will come along in due time, but Syberia I had a distinct ending that made use of everything that had happened in it, and this doesn’t.

I was having fun while it lasted. The game’s new, a bit buggy, but everything that made Syberia awesome was in place: beautiful environments, clever puzzles, good characters, excellent music and dialogue, and it’s a nice respite from games that contain combat. It has some of the shoddiness of troubled production, and seems longer and slower than needed – I can play Syberia II two or three times over in the time it takes to play III once – and the plot barely seems to get going before the game stops! I won’t be angry, because gamers spew enough hype-driven bile online already, but I hope Syberia IV can run with the potential I see in this game. So I shall resume waiting, and maybe play the series to date through again.

Bon chance, Kate Walker.

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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in Video Game


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The Last Express: A Train Long Gone

Well, it’s April, so I’m going to take another crack at my attempt last year at dedicating the month to Adventure Games.

While I wait on tenterhooks for Syberia III to make its appearance later this month, I sought out another old one I’ve had in my Steam account for some while.

Oddly, like my last-reviewed adventure game, the Journeyman Project 3, I first encountered the Last Express via a Myst game.


The original CD-ROM edition of Myst we had included a trailer for the game, created in 1997 by Jordan Mechner, also of the original Prince of Persia game.

The year is 1914 and you are Robert Cath, called up by an old friend and fellow globetrotter, to join him on a shady journey via the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople and thence on to Jerusalem. However, Cath gets aboard the train only to find his comrade dead, his room ransacked. Cath assumes his friend’s identity and has to find out how he was killed and walk a line between various factions among the train’s passengers: a German industrialist, a Serbian partisan fighter, a Russian anarchist, a mysterious prince, a beautiful and mysterious violinist, all of whom have their own reasons to deal with Cath, revolving around the mystical and priceless Firebird.

The game has a very noir-style story, and the bird-shaped objet d’art makes it clear that the noir classic the Maltese Falcon is a major influence. The other one, inevitably, is Murder on the Orient Express. Cath is not a policeman or detective – he claims to be a doctor but whether or not he’s just a con man isn’t totally obvious – and the murder becomes almost secondary to negotiating the clashing agendas aboard the train.

The gameplay is the standard look around and pick up things. These things can be used for solving various puzzles, or to get yourself in the good books of other characters – in particular the money meant for the arms dealer. For an additional twist, however, time is a factor. Time passes consistently during the game, about 5 times faster than in real life. This introduces issues like actually having a time limit to do certain things, such as having to get certain ducks in a row before you arrive at one of the cities on the Express route.

This creates a fascinatingly varied experience. Encounters with characters and what order you do some things is dependent largely on your own timing, cunning and luck. I had to rewind a long, long way back at one point in the game and ended up not having some minor encounters I’d had on the first pass, because the timing made other things take priority.

It also means that the game has a vast variety of endings – although granted almost all of them are failure conditions. You can get arrested almost at the start of the game. You can let Anna get to the train’s secret cargo before you and she ends up getting killed. You can keep Prince Kronos waiting too long and have his bodyguard knock you off. Or you can take the money and run at Vienna, and the Orient Express goes on its merry way without you. That is also treated as a failure in that the narrative says you regret it, and there’s no closure, but you survive.

Meanwhile, the story comes to you as it may by eavesdropping and snooping. Time your explorations of the train correctly and you’ll overhear conversations through doors and across tables in the dining car, and have a few of them yourself. The train is populated by quite the cast of characters: the arms dealer, the violinist, the anarchist, the Serbians, the senile Russian nobleman and his granddaughter, the chatty English businessman who is not what he seems, the young English diarist on a whirlwind romantic trip with a Frenchwoman, and the French family in the oil business whose son is obssessed with bugs.

The game does a grand job of capturing the lavish decor of the Orient Express, and the sense of scale of Europe on the eve of World War I. It hearkens back to a time when the world seems, in retrospect anyway, like a bigger, more varied and exotic place. It does rather unquestioningly imitate the Orientialist fetishism of the time, with the Turkish passenger with the harem of veiled women and the sinister but suave African-coded Kronos (he kind of reminds me of portraits I’ve seen of Haile Selassie) and his also-African lady-bodyguard. Nonetheless it’s a visual feast as well as an exercise in strategic thinking. The minimalist animation combined with rotoscoping also lends it an appropriately vintage look.


Granted, it’s not perfect. The game’s a bit buggy, in such a way that if things don’t go in a way the game expects, like when a pre-scripted event kicked in just as I was hiding the Firebird, then the next scripted event didn’t happen and I had to rewind way back and begin again. The controls are a little fiddly as well. The cursor doesn’t have to move far to the side of the screen to make the ‘move forward’ arrow turn into the ‘turn around’ arrow, and sometimes I’d get stuck moving forward and go whizzing past my destination. Also, given the uniformity of design of train cars, if you do accidentally hit the turn-around button, it can take quite a while to notice. Plus, the baggage cars are weirdly hard to navigate in.

Beyond that, the game has lots of material, but it seems like it’s shallower than all this detail warrants. The Serbians end up being more serious antagonists than Kronos, who has vanishingly little screen time and no backstory to speak of, and is dealt with with strangely little ceremony. I sense the odd plot hole, like how Cath somehow goes from being invited by his friend on the trip to being determined to get to Jerusalem for his own purposes, and the way the game insists you get the gold doesn’t make immediate sense to me, and the role of the anarchist as anything but a side plot is unclear.

This isn’t helped by the solution to the mystery suddenly veering out of Murder on the Orient Express and into Raiders of the Lost of the Ark in a way that doesn’t really seem to reward a lot of your detective work, and is scarcely foreshadowed, since anything supernatural wasn’t really on the menu prior to that. Plus several supporting characters get a ‘rocks fall and everyone dies’ treatment and Cath and Anna’s shared arc seems to fizzle out, although the tragedy element of some noir does make sense there. I gather Mechner intended to spin this out into a franchise but it didn’t pan out. And as a result of trying to leave it open-ended, it comes across as a story half-finished. Holding back details like Myst does can create a sense of mystery and imply a bigger world, but this isn’t doing that, it just feels like a lot of the world, mythology and characterization is either missing or isn’t used.
It’s still good, mark you. The time element lends it replay value, and it certainly stimulates fascination with the time it’s set in, and interest in a colourful and diverse range of characters, but it lacks the intricacy and intelligence of the Journeyman Project or Myst. In general I get the impression that Mechner had high aspirations for this game and refused to accept the tools he actually had and make the most of them. Nonetheless, a fun time, and if the plot doesn’t have a lot of closure, at least my memory of that trailer has some now.

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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Video Game


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Obduction: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gaming, like drinking, can occasionally cause a hangover in those who over-indulge. I think I’ve got one of those at time I start writing. That said, I had good cause on a few levels.

I’d heard about the Kickstarter-funded project undertaken by Cyan, renowned in legend for being the creators of Myst and Riven, of which I’ve written previously. And this weekend I finished playing it: Obduction. Since it only just came out I’m going to put down a SPOILER warning for the rest of the article, in case readers do not wish to proceed further at this time.


In Obduction you are led through the woods by a mysterious hovering giant pinecone. Following it, you find yourself teleported to an alien world populated with fragments of Earth, seemingly scooped from across history. These are placed within a ‘bubble’ on this alien world, one of a trinity of realms transplanted for unknown reasons. The populace transplanted along with them have vanished, leaving signs and records of the looming threat, and the few that remain need your help to enact a plan to regain freedom and escape the alien enemy who threatens them.

Obduction definitely has a lot of what I loved about the Myst games. The game looks fantastic, on par with the graphics of Myst III: Exile, with the added benefit of high definition. The puzzles are, for the most part, the kinds of little logic challenges adding up almost fractally to bigger-picture achievements that I liked and help build a sense of discovery. The human characters – mostly encountered through barriers or in recordings – are full-motion-video like the characters of Myst, which charms me oddly.

There’s a lot of little things, especially sounds, that evoke the old Cyan standbys: creaking machinery and metalwork, door hinges, ambient insects and birdsong, give me occasional flashbacks to the old favourites. Most of the short-term puzzles offer a lot of charm as well, with the challenging but decipherable logic that anyone with a little basic understanding of physics and reasoning can usually crack with a little effort. The challenge lies particularly in the order in which to do things, like that classic brain teaser about getting the sheep, the wolf and the cabbage across the river in a rowboat.

I do like the controls and the ability to roam freely like in the realMyst remaster. Funnily, the controls and the aesthetic of the first environment are so much like Half-Life 2 that I kept forgetting that the game didn’t have jump or crouch functions.

I’ve heard it said that some people found the emptiness of Myst frightening. At the time, I never really saw it. With Obduction though, I can. Part of it is that in Myst, you can arguably infer that you chose to pick up the book and embark on the adventure. With Obduction, it’s right there in the name: you’ve been lured and abducted against your will. Whereas Myst has a very open-ended vagueness as to what is going on at first, with Obduction you have a clearer, if you like, operational objective: figure out who abducted you and what you’re going to do about it. The constant allusions to a battle add to a sense of urgency. I was surprised at one point when you arrive just at the tail end of a skirmish between alien forces, since that’s the closest I’ve ever seen a Cyan game get to having combat in it.

The connection to Riven is interesting as well. In Riven, solutions to the bigger puzzles lie in your attentively navigating between multiple interconnected islands, and in developing an understanding of how to most efficiently move between them. That mechanic is here too; as you explore and open up the game worlds – I persist in thinking of them as Ages – you streamline the process of moving back and forth more and more with every step, with a combination of banal old bridges and passageways, and teleportation devices and portals. And as you weave around in them, you gain perspective on the shape of the interconnected realms, and it’s remarkable to realize the elegance with which a huge amount of paths, puzzles and other content is condensed into complex but ingenious layouts.

I heave a sigh as I say that, because it’s time to segue into the stuff that I don’t like about the game – of which there is a lot. The three game worlds are huge. I’m not sure how you measure the size of a digital environment but each one feels almost as big as the whole of Riven. All well and good, lots of things to play with and do, the trouble is that they’re too big.

My computer is an Alienware laptop designed to be up to snuff for all gaming needs. I had to turn Obduction’s graphics down to the lowest setting so the game would only crash occasionally. Even then, the loading times for different environments were insane. Sometimes the loading screens brought on by the teleport devices went on for almost five minutes. Changing CD-ROM discs to play Riven in the 1990s took thirty seconds on a bad day! Added to that, when in free-roaming movement mode, I repeatedly clipped through bits of the world geometry, at one point falling down a hole. One of the big puzzles bugged out badly at one point as well. These are relatively easy to fix, but distressing that we couldn’t have polished them off before release.

That’s merely an annoyance, but the graphics undermined the game in another way. In classic Myst fashion, a lot of hints and details about the situation are provided by reading people’s notes, diaries and other missives. Such documents are plentiful, but somebody in the design department must have Elvish eyesight, because the writing in almost all cases is too small, poorly lit or too faint for me to read without getting a headache. And useful information is either so arcane, wordy or couched in rambling personal remarks that the headache gets worse. It was so unpleasant trying to read these that I ended up skimming them for codes and passwords and then tossing them aside.

And in so doing I probably shot myself in the foot somewhat, because while everything hints at a gripping and intense story of mystery and menaces from beyond threatening lost innocents, having played the game, I still have only the vaguest idea what was going on. It’s established that there are two alien races sharing the Ages with the humans, and one of them is an enemy, but I can’t even remember which one. I don’t understand how our objective of activating the power across all three worlds connects to the oncoming battle or what, if anything, they have to do with the story’s climax. Heck, you only see them once and they barely so much as speak to you!

The only person you regularly meet in real time, so to speak, is the human C.W., somewhat the Atrus of the piece. But he’s got his own issues. His sighing mode of speech means that, given the amount of machinery in the space you encounter him, I had to turn subtitles on to understand what he was saying. He’s the only voice giving you concrete ideas of what to do and what’s going on, so there’s no sense of whether he’s in the right or not, no conflicting narrative, like choosing between Atrus, Sirrus and Achenar in Myst. His objective seems to be to escape and get free from this prison, but again, the significance of doing it at this time with this alleged battle threatening just isn’t coming across for me.

So the story is clearly layered but frustratingly opaque from a combination of excessive vagueness and the design getting in my way. Which reflects back, as it must, on the puzzles. And now I’m going to say something that will make me sound like a complete wimpy noob, but here it goes anyway:

Obduction is too hard.

I don’t mean that it’s too intellectually difficult. The fun parts were when that was all it was. But it was usually either just very obtuse or downright laborious. There’s a maze puzzle that stands out in this regard because to get it into the right configuration you have to employ an elevator, multiple teleport devices (bearing in mind those loading times), and a rotation system. Not only were puzzles like this giving my processor particularly bad rheumatism, but it takes so long to get from one aspect of a big puzzle to another that I’m liable to forget what I’m supposed to do during the transition!

With Riven, I freely admit that some of the large-scale puzzles only make sense to me with hindsight, and I’m well-aware that I’m not the type of person to whom these sorts of things come naturally. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things – especially the alien bridge activators – that I just blindly improvised my way through. Which, incidentally, should not have been that easy in a puzzle game! There were others that seemed completely unreasonable to deduce – in particular a key code to access a room, part of the answer to which is in that room! The last puzzle, which decides whether you get the ‘bad’ or ‘good’ endings, depends on one little change but I have no idea what that change does, so it didn’t even occur to me until I read a hint.

There’s also something thematic about the game that rubs me up the wrong way. It’s the implication that a lot of the people in the game are grateful to have been abducted from their homes and families and transplanted to an alien prison-bubble-preserve thing, and moreover, that they are right to be so. Again the story was so vague that I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but it adds to my perplexity about the whole enterprise.

Look, a lot of the building blocks of what I love about the Myst games are in here. Simply being in and exploring the worlds is very immersive and pleasant. The aesthetics of nature, machinery and architecture are classic Cyan. It’s just that after a week of actually trying to accomplish anything, the game felt like work. I was actually quite pleased with myself that I only resorted to walkthroughs or hints about six or seven times, compared to a couple dozen with Syberia. But a lot of those peeks came late in my playthrough because, as cool as the premise and environments were, I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to free of the long slogs, indecipherable diaries and unwieldy puzzles, and my computer was fairly begging for mercy. I didn’t even feel like I could take a break for a few days because the game is so complex I’d forget what I’d been doing!

Myst and Riven will never lose my loyalty, but Obduction doesn’t make the lightning strike twice. It’s a cool concept but between the overwhelming scale, excessive complexity, vague storytelling and slightly distasteful subtext, I feel like it’s trying to do more than Myst rather than focusing on doing better. It was worth a try, but I deleted from my Steam client almost immediately after finishing it, because I can’t imagine wanting to do it again.

For this game, for me, the ending has been written.

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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Video Game


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The Journeyman Project 3: Better Late Than Never

Well, so much for big ideas.

Suffice to say I had a modicum of personal drama the past couple of months. Alas, others have commented as eloquently or moreso than I could on Captain America: Civil War.

However, I do have a loose end that deserves tying up. I was going to write a series on adventure games and by jingo, that’s what I intend to do.

‘Better late than never’ has a bit of a double meaning for us today; better I be a while getting back to this blog than not at all, thus I’ll resume my reviews of Adventure Games. And this one was one I encountered a very long time after first hearing of it: Presto Studio’s 1998 saga The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time.


Your view in the game: bottom centre is your current disguise, bottom right, Arthur’s interface

As I said back at the end of March, my interest in adventure games dates back to Myst and Riven. When I first played Riven in the late 90’s, CD ROM was still how it was all done. By and by, we happened upon the discovery that one of the (five) discs that Riven ran on also had a demo for Legacy of Time.

Only in recent times and the rise of was I able to chase it down and experience it in its entirety, and so I have.

In the Journeyman Project series, you play an agent of Earth’s Temporal Security Agency. Earth is a junior partner of an interstellar alliance called the Symbiotry. A traitor to the Agency, on the run since trying to sabotage Earth’s entrance into the Symbiotry, is trying to get your attention from across the millennia.

Now, an enemy is moving towards Earth which the Symbiotry is powerless to stop. The Symbiotry realize that they seek ‘the Legacy,’ a relic of a vanished ancient, advanced alien civilization that was deposited on Earth and its hiding place concealed from history. It exists in three parts, in times and places once thought to be myths: El Dorado, Atlantis and Shangri-La.

You have to travel to each of these time periods, interact with their inhabitants, learn their mythology, and, with the help of your AI partner Arthur, solve the myriad little puzzles standing between you and the safety of humanity.

This is much more the traditional point-and-click adventure game than Myst is. Unlike Myst, you collect an inventory of objects used to do anything from repairing a machine, reaching a lever, cutting a rope, or even bribing your way into somewhere. Some objects also go together to craft something you’ll need later, or are used in a different time period than where you find them.

From a gameplay point of view, the game has aged modestly well. As with Syberia, the process of moving around is cumbersome. Although from a first-person perspective, advancing to the next area is represented by a slow movement of the camera with a ponderous footstep effect. You can skip them by keeping one hand on the escape key, but nevertheless, it’s an unnecessary addition to what is essentially the same journey from still image to still image that Riven uses.

You can move at leisure between the three time periods if you get stuck and you’ll come back to the last point you left when you return.

The puzzles themselves are, for the most part, quite artful. In a number of cases, there is actually more than one variation on the solution. I first discovered this in Shangri-La. There, you have to lubricate a rusty prayer wheel that’s part of a sort of combination lock. I discovered in separate playthroughs that there are two ways to do this: either using a bowl of yak butter from Shangri-La itself, or one of olive oil from Atlantis. This ameliorates my big problem with Syberia, in that if one approach requires collecting an item that is easily overlooked, I still have a chance to solve it in a way that doesn’t involve scouring all three game worlds for whatever it is.

When you do get stuck, that’s largely what Arthur is for: he’s the hint machine. You can adjust in the game’s settings how much help he gives you, but he’ll give successive and more pointed hints on request if you’re really stumped. He also adds little witticisms and observations that are often based on the real histories of the civilizatons the game settings are based on. He kind of reminds me of Bob in the Dresden Files.

The downside is that the ‘witticisms’ can vary enormously from ‘actually pretty funny’ to ‘will you shut up already.’ It’s especially obnoxious in that it wrecks the tone from moment to moment. The first time you visit Shangri-La, shortly after its destruction (ever after you go back to before then) you find a dead monk, and Arthur is suitably sombre and horrified. Then a couple of moves later he’s declaring his desire to yodel into the Himalayas. Maybe his emotional subroutines are corrupted or something.

Otherwise, the character interactions are somewhat variable. Legacy is like Myst in that it uses real actors on a bluescreen and integrated into the environment – Full Motion Video – rather than building CGI characters – something that would have been really hard to do well at the time. You use your time travel suit to assume the appearance of people you meet, and interact with other people in their form. It has a strategic element, especially in Atlantis, because you get different results depending on who you pretend to be.

That said, it can be a bit of a guessing game chasing down which disguise will accomplish anything. I recognize one or two actors from 90’s shows like Star Trek: the Next Generaton, but the acting is forced or amateurish, though never to the point of seeming lazy. There’s a particularly quirky performance from the Lama of Shangri-La, whom Arthur dubs ‘Lama Blinky.’ I suspect the studio lights were getting in the actor’s eyes a bit. Mostly, though, the writing is just clunky. There’s a lot of what Tropers call ‘As You Know’ dialogue, with characters elaborating at length on things they know the person you claim to be already knows, or infodumping on you under a guise of idle chit-chat. It’s like an undercover mission in a kids’ tv show.

I must here give full credit to the game for doing something I didn’t think I had a right to expect: to the best of my knowledge, the actors are (mostly) from the right part of the world for the parts they’re playing. I kind of worried I was going to be watching a bunch of Anglo-Saxons in wigs and silly accents. But, judging from the surnames in the credits, the Atlanteans are mainly Greek, south European or Middle Eastern (or American immigrants therefrom, at least), the El Dorado people are Latin and/or Native American (I think), and the monks of Shangri-La are all East Asian (albeit not Tibetans or Nepalese). Not bad, considering. And, by and large, there’s not an excessive amount of stereotype. Talk of magic and spirituality isn’t much more pronounced in the Native Americans than in the other two groups. A couple of the Doradoans (Doradii? Doradoi?) seem a bit over the top, though. So far as I’m any judge, there is no particular Asian stereotype common to the Shangri-La characters. As for the Atlanteans, the only thing in the game that makes me cringe is the hammily cheerful African ferryman, who, while technically a slave, professes to be perfectly content with his lot. Swing, and a big, racist miss.

Visually, the game looks lovely. The graphics are low-res even by the standards of their time, but the designers lovingly studied the aesthetics of real-world civilizations to build these places. The Inca and Nazca lent a lot to El Dorado. If they’d had hot air balloons, this is what they’d have looked like, I daresay. Rather than do the usual thing and make Atlantis look like an idealized Classical city, they went for a lavish Minoan look. Much more plausible and unfamiliar to modern eyes. And, speaking as the grandson of a Buddhist, I had to laugh when I realized that the monastery of Shangri-La is basically the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Boudhanath in Kathmandu in the wake of a head-on collision.

Actually, on that note, there’s something about this game that really jumped out at me. You remember how I said that you pick up some real-life historical trivia from Arthur pertaining to the real civilizations these settings were based on? Nowhere is that more true than in Shangri-La. Possibly because Tibetan civilization is better documented than Nazca or Minoan. Anyway, the game takes a stab at having educational content – it vaguely reminds me of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego – but while you’ll pick up tidbits about ancient South America and the Mediterranean, this game contains virtually a grade-school level introduction to Tibetan Buddhism!

Talk to the Lama, and it’s all there: reincarnation, the Four Noble Truths, enlightenment, Nirvana. The whole shebang. The famous mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is even a key to one of the puzzles! I actually found out a few things about the mythology I hadn’t previously heard of.

It tickles my affections because Buddhism is the one religion I’ve ever even considered follwing, and as a secular code of ethics it still retains its charm. You can solve the three worlds in any order you like, but I think that the developers intended for you to do Shangri-La last – which I ended up doing in my first playthrough. The origins of the ancient alien artefact are expressed using the wheel of reincarnation as a metaphor, and there’s an extra step in finishing the level that’s analogous to enlightenment.

Which makes it a little distressing when you remember that you’re visiting all three civilizations a few days before their destruction. There’s no suggestion that we’re even trying to avert that and save all the characters we’ve gotten to know. If there’d been some kind of Temporal Prime Directive, as they say on Star Trek, that would’ve have at least acknowledged it. It’s a plot hole that jumped out at me my second run through, and left it with a rather melancholy air.

However, that omission aside, the game is quite clever, beautifully designed, and unexpectedly charming. Amateur-hour acting and writing aside, it’s a lot of fun, and kicks off a free-floating sense of nostalgia for a 90’s kid. Time travelling in pursuit of ancient alien artefacts was the kind of plot I’d have gone absolutely ga-ga over in those days. I’m glad I caught up with it.

Or it travelled through time via the GOG machine to catch up with me, I suppose.

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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Video Game


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Adventure Game April: Syberia

I made a bit of a New Year resolution this year. I play a lot of games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Half Life, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, that all involve violence and combat. They’re fun and in many cases, quite artful.

But my life as a gamer began with the sedate and cerebral Myst and Riven so I’m going to spend the next month or so reviewing a number of adventure games I’ve picked up in the last couple of years.

So I resolved, having been given a gift card for Steam, that no matter what other games I spent it on, I would buy at least one non-violent adventure game. Steam sales being what they are, I picked this one up for a song. In fact I got a double whammy: Syberia, and its sequel, Syberia II.


Syberia was released in 2002 by European developer Microids, and features Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer. She has traveled to the sleepy Alpine factory town of Valadilene, famous in its day for producing clockwork ‘automatons’ for work and play. Kate is there to arrange the sale of the over-the-hill factory to a big American toy company, but the owner, the elderly Anna Varlberg, has died without issue. Kate investigates and makes the surprising discovery that there is an heir: Hans, Anna’s brother. Though developmentally impaired by a childhood brain injury, Hans is a genius of clockwork and automaton design, and is not, as was believed, dead, but missing. Kate must track him down to close the deal. She follows a trail through many strange towns and other places, each of which have been touched by Hans’ genius as he pursued his lifelong dream: to find the legendary island of Syberia, the secret last refuge of mammoths.

What drew me to Syberia, apart from the creators evidently being archaeology/palaeontology nerds like myself, was that it shares Myst’s clockpunk/steampunk aesthetic. Like Myst it is also geared around solving puzzles to advance to the next step of the game. You progress through a series of themed lands – towns mostly – discovering secrets in each that contribute to a larger tale.

First off, the game looks great. The graphics probably looked a bit retro even at the time of production; the characters in particular look plastic, and their emoting (mostly in cutscenes) isn’t amazing. But the creators rolled with it by going for cartoony elements. Kate’s eyes are unrealistically big and she can store multiple papers, books and even a narwhal tusk in her jacket somehow; Ivan, the venal villain from the second game has an impossibly big nose, the circus ringmaster has an enormous head and hands, and the mammoth-worshiping Yukol people look like Inuit Hobbits. As a pleasant surprise, Kate isn’t designed for the male gaze. She’s quite tall, willowy and flat-chested, and sensibly dressed with it.

The environments are a work of art, I must say: combining clockpunk and steampunk elements with classic European architecture and scenery, and with fantastical and imaginative designs for fictional creatures and cultures. The game’s advertising makes especial use of the massive mammoth statues at the entrance to Barrockstadt – the second ‘level’ in Syberia I. I’d go so far as to say that this game is better looking than the original Myst, though not quite up to Riven or Myst III. But what is?

The main downside to the graphics is the way you interface with them. Moving Kate around is awkward, since the ‘camera’ tends to maintain a distant, wide-shot perspective. You don’t act as her pilot the same way you do in third-person games like Arkham Asylum or Mass Effect. Rather, you steer her around the environment from afar, in a state somewhere between Dragon Age: Origins and Age of Empires. You have a nice view, but at that scope, figuring out where you can and can’t go can be hard, and sometimes collectible items are extremely hard to spot. I was occasionally reduced to waving the cursor in a search pattern around the screen hoping for the ‘move this way’ or ‘pick up item’ signals to appear, and even then I missed some. Although the environments are big and beautiful, it’s easy for exploration to become frustrating because Kate moves maddeningly slowly.

I’m ashamed to say that I looked at the walkthrough about two dozen times between the two games. Sometimes I confirmed a hunch and spared myself a lot of backtracking, other times smacking myself in the head that I hadn’t spotted the solution. But there were a couple of instances where I can’t imagine how I was supposed to have figured out the answer by myself without hours of trial and error. It’s the blight I’ve heard associated with puzzle games before: that the puzzles only make sense to the people who designed them, not to anybody else.

I get the feeling the developers themselves got fed up with this by Syberia II because the puzzles become a lot more intuitive toward the end of the game – mostly. The puzzles, like many adventure games but notably unlike Myst, require you pick up various sundry items which can be used to make progress elsewhere: keys are common, but punch cards, and even firewood and fishing lures come up at various points. Exactly how they will be useful and where varies – sometimes it’s in the same room, other times you might carry it around half the game. That said, they disappear from your inventory once their job is done, so you don’t end up lugging around dozens of items whose purpose you’ve forgotten.

The trouble with the different levels in Syberia, I find, is that they’re all one step more complex than they need to be. Most of them are based around doing a series of quests or puzzles to get free and clear to move from one town to the next. In talking to people and looking for tools to do this, you find out more about Hans and Syberia at the same time. It does deserve props for a story that unfolds as a consequence of undertaking the gameplay. But it was an ongoing issue that you’d be told to aim for a particular objective and, having achieved it, be told you can’t proceed until you fulfill another objective the game never mentioned until now.
Barrockstadt, the second town in Syberia I, is the worst. You have to open a complicated canal lock, then do a favour for the university to get the funds to pay a barge captain to tow your clockwork train into position to wind up so you can move on. After figuring out and executing all the various steps to get to that point…you then have to go to a new character and do a quest for him to get your exit visa!

That said, I never got frustrated enough to want to give up, partly out of stubbornness but mostly because I genuinely wanted to see what happened.

The story didn’t always make it easy. There are elements that could be pure whimsy, but that also smack of inconsistent tone. For the most part, it’s a clean, non-violent puzzle game, with a magi-tech aesthetic, but by Syberia II we have out-and-out spiritual magic, some strong language – the villainous Ivan calls Kate a whore at one point – and then Kate indirectly kills him by leaving him to be – and I’m really not kidding – eaten alive by penguins! In the Northern Hemisphere!

It also struck me that the creators could not seem to make up their minds what time period they wanted the game set in. Hans and his family made their fortune by making wonderful clockwork automatons and other mechanisms, such as the full-scale windup train you travel on. But Kate has a cellphone! It just doesn’t ring true that a distinguished clockwork workshop would only be closing down in the age of the SIM card, or that an American toy company would want to buy it.

As you move eastwards following Hans’ quest, you encounter people mourning for the glory days of the Soviet Union – although they seldom use the name – as if the Berlin Wall just fell. Yet there is still a wall in Barrockstadt protecting against enemies from the east, but these are described by one character as coming in the form of cossack cavalry!

If they’d set the game, say, right after World War I or in the Depression, it might have worked as a kind of fantasy alternate history. As it is, it is a very strange stew of anachronisms, and that’s before we get to the mammoths!

Speaking of that cellphone, my heart sank a little right at the start of Syberia I because I found some of the dialogue really clunky, inefficient or just boring – so much that I often skipped it once I figured out how. The game has a crude dialogue tree that’s a bit of a slog and the conversations sometimes don’t sync, with one character responding to a choice of words the other character didn’t use. Possibly a translation issue since this game wasn’t originally made in English.

The biggest issue for me was that, in Syberia I, Kate periodically gets phone calls that are, universally, incredibly annoying. Her boss yells at her to get the papers signed and get back to New York, blaming and threatening her over the unforeseen complications. Her mother and workmate witter inconsequentially about their love lives and pester her about coming home. Her fiancee guilt trips her for having to be away longer than five minutes – a massive red flag for emotional abuse. Kate begs, pleads and moans like a put-upon sitcom character in response.

As the game progressed, however, it slowly dawned on me that I was supposed to think that. I went into Syberia assuming it was story-driven like Myst, but it turned out to be character-driven, and this was the starting point for Kate’s arc.

At the start, Kate is a straightforward, no-nonsense woman with all the boxes ticked: upwardly mobile career, nagging mother, chatty best friend, cookie-cutter husband-to-be. The American Dream, in short. However, as the game progresses and she learns Hans’ story and gets increasingly captivated by the quest for Syberia, she gradually realizes that the world is bigger, more magical and wondrous and full of fascinating people. At the same time, she becomes more independent from her mother and more assertive with her boss. Finally, after her fiancee and her airhead friend cheat on her, she breaks it off – with surprising kindness – because the world they represented didn’t fit her after all.

That element has been accused of being a slur on American culture – although as a Canadian I can’t say I mind – but both games share a more general theme against narrow-mindedness. The just-business behaviour of Kate’s boss, her clingy fiancee, the greed of Sergei and Ivan and the fanaticism of the Patriarch are contrasted against Hans as the unshakable dreamer and builder. Kindness is a key theme too – the first game subtly vilifies the use of the word ‘retard’ to describe developmentally disabled folks like Hans.

Some of this doesn’t completely add up. Kate’s boss is cast as villainous in Syberia II for sending a P.I. to chase Kate down and make her come back to New York, but it comes across more as looking for a missing person or employee gone rogue. Especially since Kate’s mother is worried sick – not enough to answer the phone if you call her, admittedly. If, say, Kate had tied off the contract, resigned, and then headed off on the quest, and the law firm had still insisted on hunting her down, or if her bitter ex had been on their case instead of her mom, that would have made me think of them as an enemy. As it is, Kate can come across as a bit irresponsible instead. In any case, the P.I. never manages to catch up, so their threat is somewhat hollow.

As her character develops, the other main characters become dear to you as they do to her. Oscar, the automaton engine driver, while a bit of an anal coward reminiscent of C-3PO, is kind of sweet and surprisingly tragic. Hans is adorable; physically about 80 but mentally 12 with the patience of the Dalai Lama. You really feel like you would do everything you could to make sure his dream came true. As his health declines throughout the second game, there’s a real sense of fear that you might not make it. I grew quite fond of Yuki, the fantastical dog-creature Kate adopts. Kind of reminds me of Naga from the Legend of Korra.

The sense of wonder and mystery is sold really well as you progress, however sluggishly, through a rich variety of interconnected environments. You start to realize that Hans has been slowly building and inventing his way across Eurasia en route to Syberia for decades, and the sense of wonder he leaves behind him is vaguely Messianic. Or, since we’re heading for the Arctic, like Santa Claus.

For all the clunky gameplay, corny dialogue and kinks in internal logic, I’m really glad I gave Syberia a go. It has a good heart: thoughtful character arc, enormous imagination, themes of respect and liberation of the spirit, all held up by lovely environments and music. I found myself genuinely moved by its finale. It’s almost cool that the game ends quite smartly, because it allows you to imagine the next step. Personally my headcanon is Kate becoming a bestselling travel writer and professional adventuress. Although a new game is apparently in the pipeline, so we’ll see. As much as it served to remind me I’m not necessarily intellectually well-suited to them, I was glad to affirm my roots as an adventure gamer, and to have enjoyed a good story too.

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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Video Game


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Babylon 5: An Old Story

Every now and again, you hear that little pearl of wisdom that says that the number of stories in the world is finite, and that certain archetypes repeat themselves time and again with different trappings.

That’s why you can often tell how a story ‘is supposed to go’ in some intuitive way without the story being ‘predictable’ in the sense that it’s boring and a foregone conclusion. Or more pointedly, you get a distinct sense of disjointedness when it doesn’t follow the right dynamics. For me at least, there’s a momentary mental *bzzzt does not compute* experience when that happens.

Naturally, this is subjective, although it seems more definite in some cases than in others, as with my favourite subject to complain about: the slapdash and meaningless ending of Mass Effect 3.

The extraordinary thing is that, earlier this spring, I discovered the true ending of Mass Effect 3! The culmination of a team’s bonding, the final climax of a crisis risking billions of lives, the unification of former enemies in an act of grand defiance.

Unfortunately, it was in a fourth-season episode of Babylon 5.




To say the least, awkward.

Babylon 5 was already in a strange place. Created by J. Michael Straczynski and airing from 1994 to 1998, Babylon 5 features the crew of the titular human-run space station which, in the wake of a war between Earth and the Minbari civilization, has been created as a neutral port and diplomatic safe zone to encourage interstellar amity.

The human staff and the alien diplomats face down many an interstellar crisis, pirate attack and false-flag stunt, as well as crimes and injustices among the ragtag station inhabitants, especially the proud Centauri and their erstwhile subjects, the Narn. Human politics swings between interstellar cooperation and human-supremacist rabble-rousing. And the mysterious Vorlon race play their games against the ultimate threat, an ancient enemy, the Shadows, looming nearer and nearer…

Wait, hang on. An interstellar community on a commerical/diplomatic space station? Two races, one who once occupied the other, trying to resolve their differences? A threat from darkest space looming ever closer to war, throwing our heroes’ worlds into chaos to pave the way for their coming? This sounds a heck of a lot like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

The fact that they ran paralell to each other did raise some eyebrows, and accusations of ripoff run both ways. And I gather that, in the 90s, Trekkies and Fivers were practically at war.

Babylon 5 wasn’t really on my radar at the time, and without the pedigree of Star Trek behind it, it didn’t really escape cult status. Funnily enough, Majel Barrett (aka Mrs. Gene Roddenberry) once guest-starred and one of the recurring villains was the telepathic secret agent Bester, played by Walter Koenig, formerly Chekhov of the Original Star Trek.

First impressions of Babylon 5 were bad, I admit. This was partly because without the aesthetic tradition of Trek or the blessings of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects look awful. They used CGI in the early days thereof, and all the spaceships appear to be made of plastic. The set design is the definition of retro-futuristic and the makeup effects – well, the first alien I met in B5 looked like this…


Not a promising start, I thought. Still, in the name of giving it a fair go, I soldiered on. The acting, especially in early seasons was distinctly over-the-top and wilfully campy. B5 generally has a bigger silly streak than Star Trek. The writing also has a weakness for purple-prose speeches. And while it liked to tell stories of cooperation and peace between races, it didn’t really back it up with the kind of diverse casting – only one regular woman at first and one person of colour – that has traditionally been Star Trek’s specialty.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because when all’s said and done, Babylon 5 really is a fun show. The trappings may be a bit weak but it has a good heart in it, and while the dialogue – and monologue – took a while to gain some nuance, the actors rise to the occasion. The silliness quotient worked because the acting style was (slightly) more naturalistic, making the characters more likeable rather than making them look stupid. Indeed, one of the attractions of the show is that, to my taste at least, the actors aren’t flawlessly attractive all round, and their feelings and personalities take the front seat from the ‘big ideas,’ something DS9 took a while to get the hang of.

And in certain respects it’s consdiered a somewhat ‘harder’ science fiction show than Trek ever was, although it wasn’t neccessarily very consistent about it. Babylon 5 is based on a classic hypothetical design for space stations called an O’Neill Cylinder, and speculative fiction bigwig Harlan Ellison was the show’s creative consultant.

One point on which B5 and DS9 were undeniably in lockstep was that both were pioneers in the development of mythology-arc television series. Straczynski sketched out the story of the whole series and while there are a number of seemingly unrelated subplots – the Centauri/Narn conflict, the Mars independence movment, the manipulative behaviour of the Psi Corps and the Vorlons – they all end up being interconnected, but in ways that don’t become immediately obvious. Indeed, for my taste, B5 did it better than many shows that came after it. My problem with shows like Lost (with which B5 shares an actress, Mira Furlan) or the new Doctor Who or Game of Thrones is that they lead you on with constant foreshadowing until the lack of payoff just frustrates me into losing interest. Babylon 5 makes you wait but provides lots of small victories and side stories to make every episode more than just a chunk of an interminable prologue. DS9‘s Dominion War arc was similarly structured and also very effective. Babylon 5’s benefited from being about three seasons shorter, but DS9 had fewer sub-threads whereas B5 occasionally seemed to put them in as a way of making the story more complicated for complication’s sake, and one or two of them simply faded away.

The thing that really charms me about Babylon 5, though, is its sheer, unrelenting pluck. Michael O’Hare, the leading man, had to leave after season one due to serious mental illness, but he stuck it out through what, I gather, was pretty brutal suffering to see that the show got a fair shot. The new lead, Bruce Boxleitner as Michael Sheridan, managed made a distinctive character of his own. Peter Jurasik could do the venal goofball aspect of Ambassdor Mollari or make you tear up with equal skill. Mira Furlan channeled her frustration with the chaos in her home country into Ambassdor Delenn’s speech to her planet’s rulers in season 3 – she apparently read the speech and asked Straczynski ‘So when did you go to Croatia?’ – and it becomes genuinely difficult to remember that the affably psychopathic Bester and the guileless Pavel ‘nuclear wessels’ Chekhov were played by same person! Across the board, the cast gave 110%, and that makes up for a lot in my book. Having wrapped up its main arcs in Season 4, it was unexpectedly handed another season and some more cast changes, and still manages to tell a good and emotionally charged story, if a somewhat less interesting one.

I was cognizant of the rivalry between Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine when I started. And indeed, the similar brushwork is pretty suspicious. But as the show developed, by far my strongest impression was that if I were to go check, I’d find that Drew Karpyshyn and Casey Hudson, lead writer and director of Mass Effect, were Babylon 5 fans. Replace ‘telepathy’ with ‘biotics,’ ‘Babylon 5’ with ‘the Citdael’ and ‘Shadows’ with ‘Reapers’ and there’d be little left to do before they’d be almost the same. And because the basic framework of the kind of ending lots of people agreed they’d expected Mass Effect 3 to have is in fact in the resolution of Babylon 5, I kind of wonder if Hudson deliberately derailed ME3’s plot because he was afraid of being accused of ripping off Babylon 5.

Probably not, though. To this day the bizarre bait-and-switch execution of ME3 baffles me. I think they could have gotten away with it. B5 is still a cult phenomenon, so not many people might have noticed. But consider this: Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine and Mass Effect share all of these uncanny-to-suspect similarities, so much so that there’s almost a one-to-one match in some aspects of the worldbuilding and character ensembles, and all of them are still good! They’re all dealing in themes of unity in difference, the cost and agonies of war, and the value of life in all its forms, but each one does it in a different way, builds a different world around them, has its own distinct nuances and variations and, most importantly, its own set of memorable characters. Similar stories don’t have to cancel each other out, as long as each makes the narrative its own. These three each paint on the same canvas and you get something special from all of them. If Casey Hudson had let the narrative run its natural course, Mass Effect would stand unblemished beside them, and we all might have been on the same page, as it were.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about Babylon 5. It’s certainly earned its cult status and is worth a shot if you enjoyed either of its brothers-in-narrative above. It lacks the serious-mindedness of Deep Space Nine and interactivity of Mass Effect, but it has charm – never a feature to be underestimated – solid writing, a well-planned arc and really phenomenal acting. And it heartens me that, regardless of commercial or cultural success, the story these three share can occur so many times and remain beautiful.

So, the acting is great, the characters charming, the story is classic, the special effects are rather delightfully quaint…

The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Or the Citdael.

Or Deep Space Nine.

Any of them will do.

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Posted by on June 2, 2014 in Television, Video Game


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Saturday Supplemental: Marauder Shields

I occurs to me that in a number of my past articles, I’ve been using the term ‘fanfiction’ as a byword for ‘creatively bankrupt.’ Mostly I’m trading shamelessly on its popular image: Indulgence. Immature. Prurient. Of no interest to the serious-minded. As with comics, I used to write off the whole endeavour as contemptible and dirty.

And while, by gods, a lot of it is awful, then it probably isn’t a larger part than of normal fiction that’s tiresome rubbish. Joss Whedon, among others, encourages his fans to participate in this fashion, and legitimate authours like Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik partake of the practice themselves.

So I am reconciled to the phenomenon. They have the potential to be avenues of active participation by fans in their favourite stories. And one of those stories where participation is particularly enthusiastic is in the fandom of Mass Effect.

The ending of Mass Effect 3, as I and others have documented, was a source of deep creative difference between the developers of the game and its fans, a dispute pressed particularly hard given the amount of creative freedom the player has in the game’s story, and which the Extended Cut downloadable content only superficially addressed. Vast numbers of ‘Fix Fics’ offering alternative outcomes sprang up, but only one of them has achieved fame outside of fan fiction circles, to the point of being written up by gaming journalists and, now, being reviewed by me: the web comic Marauder Shields.


Koobismo’s own ‘cover’ for the comic

Authoured by DeviantArt contributor koobismo with the aid of several like-minded chums, Marauder Shields is a play on a popular meme that sprang from the Retake Mass Effect campaign.

The last enemy you gun down in Mass Effect 3 is a middleweight monster called a Marauder, and when you aim at it, as with any enemy in the game, the name “Marauder” appears onscreen, along with a bar showing its shield strength, thusly:


The joke, as thirty seconds on YouTube will show, is that Marauder Shields was in fact the name of a hero who died trying to save you from the sloppy and incomprehensible ending of the game.

Koobismo took the premise and ran with it. The first five ‘episodes’ of Marauder Shields are a comedic parody, representing the author venting his frustration, but from episode 6 onward (up to 53 at time of writing), the comic changed into a serious attempt to reinvent the ending of the trilogy.

Each episode consists of a dozen-or-so-frame strip, and has been telling the story of the decisive battle against the Reapers on Earth, which formed the final set piece of Mass Effect 3.

Commander Shepard, our hero, has been struck down and critically wounded on the cusp of accessing the super weapon devised from ancient plans to stop the Reapers. We see Shepard’s squad, the group who we came to know and love as Mass Effect fans, struggling to save their leader, and to hold the line against the Reapers. Acts of bravery and comradeship are shown on all fronts, while in the background, sinister plots-within-plots begin to hatch, suspicions arise about the exact origin of this ancient super weapon plan, and while friends struggle to reach the place where their leader fell, a single Marauder stands guard there, its behaviour increasingly unexpected.

Now, it must be said that if you haven’t played Mass Effect at least once, this won’t make enormous amounts of sense. The characters, their species, and their technology come pre-established; the situation they’re currently facing is already underway, indeed nearing its conclusion, so if you’re innocent of the background, it will take some pretty heavy deduction or an extended visit to the Mass Effect wiki to figure out what’s going on.

If you have played it, then you are in for a treat. The artist uses a combination of his own, quite luminous paintings built around stills from the game, for accuracy and expediency. The dialogue, while a little pedantic in places, matches the manner of the characters it’s given to. The events of the story thus far have captured the friendships, loves, sacrifice and courage of all the characters in the new alliance forged to fight this battle, to much the same standard as was set by the game’s own storytelling. Koobismo even creates separate versions of each strip featuring one of the two characters you have to choose between saving in Mass Effect 1. The author and his cadre have also created ‘audio book’ versions of several chapters, and the sound effects, music and lines are mixed very well, and the performers, amateurs that they are, do remarkably good impressions of several of the characters.

The downside of all this beautiful sound and fury is that, since the story really kicked off, we’ve gotten 48 chapters in and not an awful lot has happened, plotwise. We’ve gotten caught up on our heroes, several threads have been established, lots of suspense and hints have been dropped, but while the turning point is clearly at hand, this does feel like an unnecessarily long wait, while the many subplots being hinted at are growing so numerous that I’m starting to get less engaged and more confused. Many of the strips include flavour text to provide context or bonus information, modeled after the Codex in the game itself, which I almost invariably skip. The audio book segments are very impressive from a technical point of view, but some of the performers are better at imitating the characters than they are at actually acting. Depending on your range of reading, it can be a little strange to go from the Canadian/American production of Mass Effect itself into the comic; koobismo’s DeviantArt page says he lives in Poland, but certain stylistic hallmarks in his writing would ordinarily mark him as an Englishman.

Marauder Shields, apart from being a worthy endeavour by and on behalf of Mass Effect fans, is visually impressive, emotionally charged, intriguingly intricate and quite creative. It’s a charmingly grassroots approach to role-playing games and fairly plausible in the context of Mass Effect’s mythos (more than the original ending managed, in some cases), and a valiant undertaking by a group of talented amateurs. So far it’s been a little bit slow-building, and it’s going to have to pick up speed soon to maintain interest. But it shows every sign of doing that. It’s biggest challenge is going to be trying to find middle ground between giving the series a satisfying alternate ending and remaining open to the many different choices Mass Effect players can make getting to the end of the game in the first place.

So if you are a Mass Effect fan or enjoy a well-made fan project, check it out, on koobismo‘s page on DeviantArt or at the independent website, Hope is Alive! Hold the Line!

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Posted by on November 30, 2013 in Comic, Saturday Supplemental, Video Game


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Dragon Age: Origins: A Study in Roleplaying

Like comics, video games are a community in which I dabble but have never broken into in a big way. I take the good experiences where I can, however. The point has been made often enough, by Yahtzee Croshaw among others, that when a game is story-driven, with you as the protagonist, it can create an emotional engagement that is unique.

I’ve been reflecting on this sadly ever since the dust-up over Mass Effect, but I got a crash course in the concept via one of my Christmas presents: the first game in BioWare’s other flagship franchise: Dragon Age: Origins.Dragon-Age-Origins

Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age is a Roleplaying Game, but whereas ME is a science-fiction graft over a fantasy roleplaying dynamic, Dragon Age just is the fantasy roleplaying dynamic.

The basics are simple enough: a quest-based story featuring a group of characters with abilities representing the RPG class trinity of warrior, rogue and mage. In the age-old tradition of fantasy, you also choose your race: human, elf, or dwarf, with different impacts on your backstory and particular abilities.

Regardless of how you start out, the setting is the Kingdom of Fereldon, and it is under attack by an army of corrupted horrors from beyond called Darkspawn who will consume all things good and wholesome if not destroyed.

I decided to buck the obvious trends to play as, say, an elf prince. So I began the adventures of Sereda Aeducan, daughter and military officer of the dwarven king.


Yes, I know she’s not exactly attractive. Seriously though, the default female dwarf was absurdly dainty-looking. A dwarf ought to be robust, male or otherwise.

Sereda has to spend her life negotiating the knotty political plotting that characterizes dwarvish nobility. When, in the flush of a victory against the Darkspawn, she’s framed for the murder of her brother as part of a power-seizing scheme, she’s exiled to die in the Deep Roads, only to be found by her allies in the Darkspawn fight, the Grey Wardens, and she joins them.

From here, the story melds with any of the several I might have started with: crisis strikes as the Grey Wardens are betrayed by the usurper Teyrn Loghain who wants to concentrate his power in the kingdom to make it a bastion against Darkspawn or neighboring powers. As one of the few Grey Wardens still standing, you must pull together various fugitives and free agents, and travel the country to raise support to restore order in Fereldon and drive back the Darkspawn.

So: dragons, evil armies, usurpers, finding allies, quests, and the double trinity of race and class. On the face of it, Dragon Age is the least original game one could reasonably ask for.

Despite that, I found myself getting quite caught up in it. Part of it, I think, is that the writers developed an effective set of politics and social structures following semi-historical lines, that keeps it original enough, but left the world itself in a basic fantasy setup so that learning about it didn’t become too intricate and dense a process. They do just enough to freshen it up and no more; the Darkspawn and their fall-from-grace origins replace staid old orcs and goblins; elves are an underclass a bit reminiscent of Romani (at least as they appear in literature); dwarves are Machiavellian instead of Viking-esque by nature.

The gameplay is quite interesting. You can zoom in on your character and follow them in a third-person combat style or zoom out to a bird’s eye view of your character, support characters and enemies, deploy your forces, and turn it into a small strategy game! The graphics are on the low end of BioWare’s quality, which is still agreeable, if a bit plasticky. I kept noticing how ludicrously big the swords are in this game. As a novelty, since I played a dwarf, I must say it took quite a while before I was able to get Sereda a decent axe.

The game suffers from classic RPG clutter. Enemies drop items like potions, but there are so many kinds for situational things like cold resistance that I quickly just discarded them and stockpiled health potions instead, and every trip to the market was spent selling off the vast amount of second-rate armour and weapons I’d picked up. You accomplish quests with three comrades (drawn from a pool of nine) and can control one at a time, with the others handled by the computer. You can program the others with tactics so that they’ll automatically do action X if situation Y arises in battle, but at a lower difficulty anyway it’s just an exercise in micromanagement.

Mass Effect had side quests that might involve navigating a negotiation, or racing against time to defuse a bomb. In Dragon Age, almost every side quest centres on combat. I often got fed up with finding a dozen cultists hiding in every last broom cupboard. I played through the first half of the game on standard difficulty but after a while I dropped to easy because I was tired of having my combat prowess challenged at every turn and just wanted fun hack-and-slash action instead.

The roleplaying aspect is necessarily diluted: in Mass Effect, you’re always Commander Shepard. Decisions just dictate what kind of person Shepard is. In Dragon Age, you can be a whole range of possible characters. Among other things, that means that you can’t have a voice. You just pick a dialogue option and then get a response. Recording full dialogue for that many possibilities would be impractical.

The dialogue system itself is a little confusing. The custom in RPGs is to have three options for replies in conversations: a friendly/positive response, a blasé/neutral response or a badass/unfriendly one. That basic dynamic is in here but sometimes there are as many as eight dialogue options. It’s great as far as range of choice goes but it also means it can be hard to predict what reaction you’ll get. Since your relationships with other characters are dictated by what you choose, it can be a little challenging to make up your mind.

In a way, though, that’s part of the brilliance of Dragon Age. Mass Effect was very good at this, but in that series the way you behaved was measured by its effect on you. In Dragon Age, your interactions with characters changes their ‘approval’ level. Get it high enough and new powers are unlocked, along with conversations as your friendships deepen and maybe even blossom into love. But some of them have motivations that mean their approval can be hard to buy with a clear conscience. In short, your game experience is shaped directly by your effect on other people. Combine that with the deep, witty, if sometimes pedantic writing and the superb voice acting for the other characters and a simple mechanic engages you and makes these characters into real people who you begin to appreciate through your character’s eyes; care about, find funny, get mystified by…

Your own self-image evolves as you go through this too. My earlier description of my character, Sereda, is just the game’s own bare-bones breakdown of who she is. Through the dialogue options, there’s a kind of intuitive process as your imagination sculpts them further. Sereda, I thought, was proud and kind but blunt and resented the dishonesty and politicking she was expected to practice. Her quest was a discovery of the range of people in which she could find nobility, and the finding of a place where she really belonged.

While it has been said that the main story of the game is pretty much the same after playing your character’s specific starting mission, the different little nuances of banter, approval shift and other little moments stand to give it a variation that should keep it fresh. I often agonized about which party members to bring and how to combine them based on what little character touches might shake loose, given what I knew about them and the situation.

One thing I’ve learned to accept in RPGs is that you will never have a perfect play through. You’ll always make one out-of-character choice because you want to see what happens down that path, and if you get really into it like I did here, deliberate with yourself as to whether it was the ‘right thing to do.’ If you’re interested in characterization and plot, then it’s a neat tool for exploring the process in a prepared setting.

So Dragon Age: Origins has been a very pleasant surprise. I was expecting a by-the-numbers fantasy game, and while it was built on one, the experience is one of depth, character-driven story and the great emotional engagement that a well-written roleplaying video game can offer. It’s a great exercise for the imagination, offering a range of choices and paths to try out, but they share a common focus and it doesn’t become an open-ended time sink, a quality that has always turned me off the big open-world RPGs like Skyrim.

Even if you only play it once, if you allow yourself to immerse in it, you’ll find it a satisfying experience, despite any issues of mechanics or difficulty. But I suspect that, if you’re anything like me, every little dilemma or doubtful call you made will compel you to try and refine your approach the next time. I look forward to my next run at it, and proudly, but wistfully, bid farewell to Sereda: Grey Warden, hero, lady and officer!

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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Video Game


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Myst and Riven: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 1

With the Christmas season at hand, I’ve been debating what to review that would fit the occasion. I’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, the old claymation Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so bad I wouldn’t know where to start, and much as I love Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown it’s rather insubstantial.

It occurred to me that the key, the true meaning, if you will, of Christmas is childhood joy and family. So I’m going to talk about something that brought my family together and had a profound impact on my childhood.

In the late 90s-early 00s my family, particularly my brother and I, had one fictional work firmly at the centre of our lives: Myst, and its sequel, Riven.

Myst was a trendsetter for computer games in the 1990s. Created by the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller of Cyan, it’s a fantasy adventure game that spawned a franchise of five sequels, two spinoffs, an online multiplayer game, and three novels.

In the first game, Myst, you discover a strange book that describes an island in another world. You lay a hand on a page and find yourself teleported to the island in question, which, funnily enough, is named Myst. The island is littered with strange devices, combination-code locks and more books linking to other worlds (Ages, as they are called) with more puzzles, lost diaries and other clues to a story of betrayal, loss and dark secrets.

In the second game, Riven, you’re sent on a mission to the Age of Riven to stop a tyrant who threatens to unleash his madness on countless helpless Ages. You’re thrown into a new world of puzzles and clues, tracing the history of a fractured family, a lost civilization, and one man’s insane ambition.

There are more sequels, but the heart and soul of the franchise is Myst and Riven. Cyan was still a small company and they have a creativity and craftsmanship about them that reflects that. Later instalments were handled by big companies like Ubisoft and, frankly, developed an increasing air of money-spinning.

Myst and Riven, before they’re fantasy, or adventure, are a mystery – which makes sense, if you think about it. Weirdly, a lot of the game involves reading other people’s diaries. Journals, letters, and secret messages abound, sent by people you seldom see and which you must use to attempt to reconstruct who they are and what happened to them. We spent hours tossing around theories as we tried to discover how various clues fit together. The mystery is punctuated with logic puzzles that open locked doors, turn on power, and open the way to new clues, all the while letting you make deductions about the nature of the world – indeed, worlds – you are in.

And those worlds are remarkable. Douglas Adams described Myst as ‘a beautiful void,’ words that cannot be bettered. It can actually be quite unnerving as you wander the islands, pushing random buttons and discovering an hour later something has changed and you wonder whether you did it and whether, perhaps, you are being watched…

There are drawbacks. Myst has very 90s graphics that the revamped ‘realMyst’ version doesn’t completely overcome. The victory scenario isn’t locked off until you play the rest of the game. The only thing stopping you from going straight to the final mission is not knowing how, so a second playthrough might feel like just going through the motions.

The movement controls are a little old-fashioned. RealMyst added a fluid 360-degree motion system but Riven is still like clicking your way through an incremental slideshow.

Myst vs realMyst


Still, Riven improves on most of the issues; the graphics use photographed textures for a startling degree of realism that has aged incredibly well – it’s definitely the best-looking game in the franchise. Every time you start a new game the lock combination puzzles are re-scrambled so that you still have to find them, and you have get to a certain point in the game before it’s possible to trigger the ending. Some puzzle clues are widely scattered, which in Riven’s much bigger game world gets a little frustrating. To this day there is one puzzle that I can’t solve without the walkthrough.

The sole flaw in the world building is that some locations were clearly meant to be puzzles and nothing else. We’re to understand that people lived on Myst Island, and you can examine personal items like dinnerware and inkstands in some Ages. So it is a little distracting to realize that nobody in the world of Myst appears to require a toilet.

It must be said that the Myst games are awfully mellow. There are no weapons, no explosions, and no monsters; just you and an island. You don’t have a voice or appearance, either; you’re a silent stranger. That does let you imagine yourself there rather than remote-controlling somebody else, though. Apparently the Millers are deeply pacifist, so they wanted to do a game that was challenging and immersive without using violence and gore.

And do you know what? They nailed it. The games grab the imagination with a combination of escapist fantasy and detective work. The setting is one of the most stunning and beautiful I’ve experienced in any medium, a combination of original fantasy landscapes, steampunk aesthetics and some of the most meticulous world-building imaginable. There are lots of little touches, like strange knickknacks on a bedside table, that are just there to create a sense of completeness to the worlds you move through without seeming like fluff, and without telling you too much and spoiling the atmosphere.

The sound design gives the environments so much reality that you can almost smell the pine needles and feel the sea air (the Millers clearly took inspiration from the landscape of their native WashingtonState). Robyn Miller’s imaginative musical tracks help create the emotional motif of each setting. The games get into the imagination so completely that 16 years later, the sight of wood panelling, brass fixtures, leather-bound books or the smell of pine trees on a wet spring day compels me to go play it again.

Indeed, the atmosphere is my favourite part. It’s distilled curiosity. Not only are you driven to solve the puzzles and the main mystery, but the worlds give you lots to grab onto as you try and interpret the characters, environment and civilizations around you. Scrutinizing the in-game cultures played a part in my choosing to study archaeology later in life.

What few characters there are, are played by live actors, not CG-characters, and seem real and important as a result. The pressure of trying to help them or hinder them, depending on which side they’re on, makes accomplishing that mission very satisfying. The story is a subtle one, in a way; a lot of the drama has already happened by the time you show up. But as you learn about it and bring about the resolution, a beautiful theme of redemption and closure emerges. One reason the later games, except maybe Myst III: Exile, lack this impact is that this theme is present but depersonalized.

The rest of the franchise has appeal, especially Exile and the novel the Book of Atrus, but they’re optional at best and spoil the mystique at worst. The core of the experience, and by far the best part, are Myst and Riven themselves. The story they tell is powerful, and the atmosphere makes it that much more gripping. The old-fashioned graphics are more quaint than unpleasant and the world building is second to none. RealMyst and Riven are available on Steam, compatible up to (unofficially) Windows 7. As retro and slow-paced as they may be, get them anyway (they’re cheap as borscht, I might add). It’s like being the main character in the Chronicles of Narnia as written by Agatha Christie, and you will never experience anything like it. It had a defining impact on my life, and it has all the power that effect suggests.

So give it a try. The ending has not yet been written…


Posted by on December 9, 2012 in Holiday Retrospectives, Video Game


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Mass Effect 3: Gaming, Stories, and the Democracy of Fandoms

ImageToday marks the official release of the ‘Extended Cut’ of the video game Mass Effect 3 by BioWare.

This is a bit of a deviation from my usual fare of film, television and literature, but I am extremely interested in this event as a fan of Mass Effect, and as somebody for whom a good story is above all treasures.

For the non-gamers in my readership, allow me to explain…

The Mass Effect trilogy is a science fiction Role-Playing Game by developer BioWare. It takes place in the 22nd Century, where humanity is a newcomer in the cosmopolitan galactic community. You play as Commander Shepard, a Human Systems Alliance Marine. More than that is up to you. Commander Shepard can be male or female, look almost any way you like, and you are given a set of options in character background and in the game’s dialogue to sculpt what kind of a person your Shepard is.

Shepard runs up against a rogue agent of the galactic UN, and is given the same status (called a Spectre) to put a stop to said rogue. In so doing, he uncovers an apocalyptic plot eons in the making that forms an imminent threat to the whole of galactic civilization.

Mass Effect 2 sees Shepard continuing to plan against this threat outside the approval of the head-in-the-sand galactic government. Shepard has to pull together a ragtag bunch of mercenaries, criminals, and general weirdoes to help foil the Big Baddies and learn their plans for invasion of the galaxy.

Mass Effect 3 sees that invasion underway, and where in 2 Shepard had to synthesize a group of individuals into a fighting force, he now has to rally whole civilizations for the final showdown.

It must be said I am not a particularly avid gamer. Strategy games like Age of Empires and puzzle games like Myst have long been my fare. Shooters and Role-Playing Games did not interest me for a long time.

Mass Effect stands as the exception to that rule. The sheer depth of the universe is stunning. The civilizations are marvellously original. The music is lovely. The graphics were already pretty good and got exponentially better from ME1 to ME3. The combat was wonderfully exciting, a science-fiction graft onto the fantasy game character classes of warrior, rogue, mage and so on. Just replace swords with assault rifles, axes with shotguns and bows with sniper rifles. Magic is replaced with ‘biotics,’ the power to manipulate gravity by people with ‘element zero’ in their systems. The same element zero is used to power faster-than-light space travel; this is the titular ‘Mass Effect.’

The story and the characters are what make it, though. The story itself is a classic epic quest with a Lovecraftian twist. As Shepard, your piece is to talk to, get to know and help prepare your allies for the mission. By those means, you get to participate in and shape you character arc and those of the other characters, many of which are genuinely heart-wrenching and beautiful. It has become, as a result, hugely popular, spawning a horde of memes, fan art and fan fiction, as well as supplementary comics. I’ve heard it called the Star Wars of our generation.

Unfortunately, the worst implications of that statement came out with Mass Effect 3. Mind you, most of Mass Effect 3 was absolutely spectacular. The dialogue was as great as ever (and for the first time there was a lot of dialogue between non-player characters, as opposed to just Shepard having one-on-one chats all the time). Some long-running plots were settled, and Shepard’s own character started to show a path to resolution.

And then the ending happened.

I didn’t write about it at the time because I didn’t actually play Mass Effect 3 until a month after it came out. I was on an overseas internship and intentionally kept myself locked off from reviews and spoilers until I finally got to play the game. I had heard that the endings were a bit of a letdown. I had fancied that they might have been rushed or just unable to live up to our very high expectations.

There’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t been said already, many times. I’ll recommend these articles to outline the problem:

Gamefront: Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons the Fans are Right

Doyce Testerman: Mass Effect, Tolkien and Your Bullshit Artistic Process

Suffice to say for now is that as you near the end of the game, and of an emotionally intense and demanding adventure, the last ten minutes seem to come out of a completely different game, a different genre even!  The themes built throughout the game are totally discarded, player choices in the game have no significance, and the end of the game is reduced to three isolated choices. Worse still, the choices seem to make no significant difference apart from the colour scheme of the ensuing cutscene, much of which literally makes no sense in the context of the game up until then.

When I finally reached the end of the game myself, I was at first convinced I had misunderstood something, and wracked my brains for some time to try and fathom it. Then I was furious at the carelessness shown by trying to disguise incomprehensibility as high art. Then I was heartbroken because I realized that without any real closure, there was no appeal in playing the game again.
It was at this point that I thought, “Good grief, Alexander, you’re going through the Five Stages of Grief over a video game!” That’s a measure of how good it was, right up until the end.

BioWare has, or had, a reputation for respecting fan desires and their wish for a choice-heavy game experience. This reputation was enough to cause a sense of betrayal. Worse still, the executive producer Casey Hudson had, up to within two months of release, made several fairly specific statements that the conclusion of the trilogy would tie together choices made throughout the game, that numerous different permutations of the ending would be possible , and that the game would be not just be a bland A, B or C ending. And they delivered the exact opposite of all of those.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer for the first two games, left the Mass Effect project before 3, but left a detailed outline for the others to build on. There was a story circulating that Hudson locked most of the writing staff out of the creative process late in the game and did the ending independently, but I haven’t been able to track it to a reliable source, and I’m ever more convinced that this isn’t true. Many blame EA, which lately became BioWare’s distributor, for meddling in the writing in the pursuit of fan controversy. Again, I have as yet no way to verify this.

Such a popular franchise’s ending would be polarizing, that one expects. But a poll on BioWare’s own site showed about 1000 voters happy with the ending, and over 60000 completely outraged and demanding the ending be changed. For many players, the inconclusive and meaningless ending killed off the appeal of starting a new version of the game, to take Shepard and company down a different path, because that path leads to nowhere worth going.

What followed was absolutely fascinating. For one thing, it exposed a severe disconnect between gamers as a community and gaming journalists. The latter threw many high scores at the feet of ME3. When confronted with the outrage of gamers, MovieBob and other known game critics were utterly savage to the community that they are meant to serve. Even the ever-contrary and intelligent Yahtzee Croshaw came down against what became known as the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ movement (after the game’s advertising slogan of ‘Retake Earth’).  Even other gamers (possibly especially other gamers) sneered at the ME3 fan base as ‘whiny’ and ‘entitled.’

As heartbroken as I was by the ending, for the same reasons as most everyone else, I was inclined to feel guilty about even caring this much. It’s only a story after all, and isn’t it rather reflective of the gamer stereotype of having no life that this is all they can get outraged about?

Happily I found myself vindicated by the way in which the ‘Retake’ movement handled things. Just to make the point about how unhappy they were, a campaign was launched that raised, eventually, US$80,000 for charity in the name of ‘Retake.’ My own empirical investigation of comment threads on BioWare Social Forum, Facebook and the Escapist show, contrary to my usual experience of internet arguments, that the abusive, trollish and aggressive behaviour of commenters comes overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the anti-Retake side. Retakers are certainly passionate, and some are extremely blunt, but mostly seem very rational and even responsible.

Forbes magazine has gotten in on things on the side of the consumers and players of the game, which has been taken as a sign of gaming becoming a ‘mainstream’ industry. There were even attempts to formally report BioWare for False Advertising. Perhaps excessive, ultimately unsuccessful, but telling.

After some statements by BioWare wherein they insisted that they wanted an ending that caused discussion and controversy, and that to change it would violate ‘artistic integrity’ (provoking the reply ‘what artistic integrity?’) they said that they would produce an ‘extended cut’ to ‘clarify’ the endings.

This hasn’t satisfied a lot of people, myself included. The endings are so at variance with the rest of the game that it is felt that they are a complete write-off. ‘Clarifying’ them has been regarded as more of a cop-out than a concession. The ‘Retake’ movement has been hesitating to continue their pressure since that announcement, at once hoping and fearing for the outcome.

Apart from my own interest in a worthy ending to such a great story, I think this is a really neat study in the democratization of art. With projects like TV Tropes, people interested in a good story are teaching themselves and others what stories are made of, and becoming informed consumers of stories. Once, only academics and professional critics got to pass judgement on the quality of stories. Now anyone (like me!) can plead a case for them.

Because games can be altered easily with Downloadable Content (patches or expansions of the game’s software that can be downloaded into a computer or console) they are the ideal medium for this process. Some people fret that BioWare’s concession (if such it be) sets a bad precedent of the unwashed masses ordering the professionals and artists around. That not only sells the masses a bit short, but the precedent was actually set in 2009 by Bethesda. They created the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 after fans expressed displeasure with the ending. Their complaint was more to do with mechanics than story, but then again Mass Effect’s misstep is seen as far more serious.

As I wait pensively to hear how the Extended Cut holds up, I look forward to seeing where organized story advocacy goes from here. I fear that if the new DLC isn’t up to scratch, I may need to join the hosts of fanfiction writers using that medium to cope.

Video games stand to become a very powerful storytelling medium (as Yahtzee Croshaw has famously said) because they break down the divide between protagonist and audience. In addition to showing the evolution of an involved and intelligent audience, the ‘Retake’ movement’s charitable concerns have done something almost poetic. A common stereotype of nerds is that we only care about fantasy and escapism while everyone else is getting on with real life. ‘Retake’ rejected this A or B choice just as they rejected the Red, Blue or Green choice in ME3 by helping people through charitable fundraising .

So I wish well everyone embarking on testing this (hopefully) olive branch from BioWare. It would be a crying shame if these superb storytellers lose the great respect they’ve earned for good. We on the fan side will continue to appreciate a good story well-told, and stand for their value in a good world. Or, as we say in the Mass Effect fandom…

We Will Hold the Line!

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Video Game


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