Saturday, April 7, 2012

First thoughts on “EMS” (“Effective Military Strength”) in Mass Effect 3

Here begin the spoilerish posts. If you haven’t finished yet, I sincerely hope you’ll come back once you have. I’m hopeful that we have in Mass Effect material for many years of analysis, that in its scale and the way that scale exposes important features of its ruleset (in which, as is my wont, I include what’s generally called its “content”) these games will stand as a landmark if not as a classic. The only negative outcome of the incredible ferment of discussion about the ending of the trilogy over the past few weeks would be if the dispute were a nine days’ wonder.

The thing that struck me most forcefully as I watched the credits roll had nothing at all, on the surface of it, to do with the strange and apparently inconsistent events of the ending, with their echoes of so many well-known sci-fi (non-)resolutions (The Matrix is the one that I felt the strongest resonance with, but I could name many, many more). What struck me was that I knew instantly that in some way I had not had the range of choices at the end that I could have had, and that this constraint (this rule, or rather this mechanic) was operative because I had not played enough multiplayer recently enough.

Such tedium to describe the bizarre system of Galactic Readiness. It comes down to BioWare breaking the apparent boundaries of the gamespace (also known as Huizinga’s Magic Circle and as the possibility space), papering that rupture over with the veneer of a galactic war, and laughing all the way to the bank as players purchase gear for their multiplayer characters on the plan of Wizards of the Coast’s brilliant Magic: The Gathering model, where the player (or rather, consumer, or perhaps player-consumer, in this case) gets the wonderful little frisson so well known to anyone who’s entered a casino, of pulling the slot-machine lever to see if this time s/he’s got a piece of gear worth having.

If you play enough multiplayer, in your single-player story you do not suffer a crippling weakening of your Effective Military Strength, and narrative possibilities are. . . different. I say “different” where most players would undoubtedly say “worse”: people (characters) die, when you don’t play multiplayer. More, your BIG CHOICES are fewer. I had two of the three possible, and when I had made my choice the final cinematic indicated pretty clearly that my failure to play multiplayer had cost Liara, my consort, her life.

You can point to other examples of important choices in other games, but I defy you to produce anything that truly compares, above all when it occurs at the end of 120 hours of practomime.

It’s also in my view consonant with the thematics of the narrative ruleset of Mass Effect in an absolutely extraordinary way. I’ll explore this further as time goes by and my thoughts unfold, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that BioWare is here in the role of the Reapers, especially if we subscribe to Indoctrination Theory: we can’t tell whether our choices mean anything, we consumer husks.

consummātum, et nōn consummātum, est (Mass Effect)

I finished it (Mass Effect 3). The controversy over the ending forced it upon me, since I was feeling less and less qualified to discuss the game as more and more people were having discussions about it in which I couldn't participate. I vow to return to my variegated playthroughs, but for the information of anyone who was following those posts, I finished on Perfect Paragon, but had to cut corners to reach the end, which is in itself a very interesting opportunity for future analysis.

The ending is in my opinion of mixed quality, and my guess is that it's the quality problems that have driven much of the player-protest. The true difficulty is in my opinion that so much of Mass Effect is so good, so far beyond anything we've played before, that the bits that are run-of-the-mill RPG fare and run-of-the-mill sci-fi fare really hurt.

Ending this thing in a way that lives up to the heights to which Mass Effect has soared, especially on the very first try and in the development situation in which the Mass Effect 3 team must have found themselves, was almost certainly an impossible task. Thank goodness they're getting another shot. There are things they won't be able to fix, of course, like the sheer number of times you're told that "This is it," which eventually made me feel like some terrible Reaper-writer was shooting a red ray of exposition into my skull. But I can certainly see how some new cinematics would make a big difference. 

The quality issue is obscuring, however, more interesting problems of choice and irrevocability. To those I shall return.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fresh Renegade for VGHVI, 15 March: plan

To enliven the conversation tonight in our VGHVI playversation about Mass Effect 1 and 2, I'm going to start a new renegade, as a kind of prequel to Hasty's career, which actually began only in ME2. But I'm going to use the Genesis DLC, at least as an opening gambit, because I've been fascinated by the idea of that sort of performance materials since I heard about.

So: the plan is to create a Fresh Renegade, who might be a plausible antecedent for Hasty, and see if the performance process reveals to me anything about the transhistorical nature of the epic hero, always recreated at the same time afresh and as a variation on his ancient self.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time out for (a) "Journey"

I don't feel adequate in the slightest to the task of talking about Journey after only playing an hour of it. But I want to register here that I've started this new practomime, and it makes me think that a relationship between ethics and aesthetics, arising out of inherited mechanics but transcending them, is gathering steam.

Everything you hear about the "multiplayer" (scare-quotes because it's not multiplayer according to most previous understandings of the term) is true, but only scratches the surface. There is much work to do here, both in elaborating the practomime (that is, playing the game) and in reading its effects.

Pragmatic Paragon, 14 March: ABOR

"ABOR" stands for After-Bardic-Occasion Report. It's an assignment I use in my (Gaming) Homer course; it seems to get modern bards like my students to the heart of the performative side of digital practomime pretty directly. Here's mine for today's session.

Pragmatic Paragon really does feel like he’s my real character, because especially of his face, which I had to reconstruct due to the face importing glitch; Perfect Paragon is based on the same character, ultimately, from ME1, as this pragmatist, but I went with the default face at the start of ME3 when hit with the import glitch on Perfect's creation.

Spent some time with the new search and recover mechanic, and actually like it--the “real first” playthrough thing has merit; just as being lost on Hasty Renegade destroyed my appreciation of the landscape, having to figure out the changes in the exploration system on Hasty destroyed my engagement, and thus any pleasure in my performance, of those initial fumblings through the galaxy-map. Now on Pragmatic, though, it feels, well, pragmatic to recover some salvage.

ME3's search and recover mechanic is more straightforward than mining in ME2, which I grew to love but which was very time-consuming. The changes have an upside and a downside, I think (I miss the way my controller shook when I hit a rich vein), but the basic mechanic is the same, and something well worth thinking about especially in relation to my character-performances.

I took this note: cannot figure out the loadout screen for the life of me; then I put in some time and figured it out. Either it's horrendously-designed, or I'm getting old, but I even eventually was able to master the weight mechanic, which gave me a small "aha" moment at the very least about the fact that I had gone from a spammer of Singularity to a waiter-for-Singularity-to-recharge.

A final verdict for now on "real first" performances--that is, second performances in which you get things right for the first time: all in all, there is some value in encountering performance materials for the actually first time, just as there is some value in sight-reading music--or sight-reading homeric Greek, for that matter. 

The virtuosic peformances that nourish our souls, though, always come later.

And then there's Garrus being dead, through my obtuseness, in this career. “Where would Garrus have been?” asks Liara. “Right in the thick of it,” Pragmatic responds. Irrevocability. Does this moment exist this way if there are no performance materials where Garrus is alive? Not a chance.

Topics for analysis suggested by this session's peformance:

  • Narrative combat difficulty: most importantly, I think the friendly critics of this approach don't understand how bad I am at combat. Perhaps a very good example of the absolute essentiality of peformance in making rulesets legible--or, to put it another way, how it's the instanced performance of the player that we can and should read, rather than the ruleset itself.
  • Absence of dead characters: having Garrus just not be there, in a place where he "should" have been there, is really very jarring. I need to unpack that "should."
  • Different faces on my paragons: in what way does it matter what my character looks like, when that appearance mechanic is so completely isolated from the rest of the mechanics of the practomime? Is there a sense in which I myself, the player, constitute a link in the game's ruleset between the appearance mechanic and the rest of the ruleset?

Pragmatic Paragon, 14 March: planning

My plan for today's session: take the Pragmatic Paragon in where the Hasty Renegade went yesterday; don't get lost this time; see whether not getting lost makes me feel more heroic.

Pre-session question: what is the importance of the second playthrough? Is there a sense in which a second playthrough is actually somehow a "real" first playthrough? Focus for that question: the issue of getting lost. Because I spent so much time being lost in my Hasty Renegade session last night, it feels like today's Pragmatic Paragon session will be my "real" introduction to the performance materials.

Is there then a "rehearsal" dynamic at work in practomime that I haven't noticed yet?