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?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The triumphs and sorrows of Hasty Renegade

I always forget that whatever career I play first, the dominant feeling of much of that career will be frustration, as I run around trying to figure out where the next objective is. Thus, as I moved towards the completion of an important diplomatic cum military mission to rescue a Turian VIP, I spent ten minutes running in circles shouting "Why don't I have a map? Why don't I have a map?"

I did, thankfully, arrive in the nick of time.

One thing I notice looking at the "War Situation" through my Renegade's eyes; I feel real despair based on the amount of time it will take to build the resources, and the learning curve involved in figuring out how to do so. Along with that feeling comes the idea that it's well to encounter these odds with this character: she's tough enough to take it, and tough enough even to lose. I have the feeling that I wouldn't want to let my Paragons try to find their ways through this maze of mechanics.

It's this interference of player concerns and performative concerns, of course, that I'm trying to analyze. I take my inspiration from the way the bards of Iliad and Odyssey (particularly the latter) let their own concerns as bards shape their tellings of the stories of their heroes. Immersion is nice, but if we want to understand how it works, we have to see it in the context of performances by players who live outside the world into which their performances immerse them; pretending that there's some, I don't know, "Magic Circle" that prevents my frustrating at not having a map from mattering within the gamespace would be silly.

The sieve of reflection

As this new way to blog about living epic emerges, one thing that seems to make sense is to intersperse occasional reflective posts that will function as a sort of intellectual sieve, and help figure out what if anything from from the past day or so of play is worth keeping around for analysis.

Some candidates:

  • Hasty Renegade has always had a very interesting relationship with Garrus, and so seeing him alive last night (I was truly convinced that he was one of the four I'd lost in this career) was a really narratively significant moment, but in a way that took me out of the diegetic situation, since Hasty Renegade herself obviously couldn't have forgotten that Garrus was alive. In an ideal medium, perhaps, it would be possible for me to play in such a way that my surprise at seeing Garrus somehow did get communicated into my performance, but that wouldn't change the bifurcation of performance and player--the reason this moment was interesting and potentially enlightening for my understanding of my performance and of who I am becoming as a result of it was that my extra-performative surprise resonated with the feeling I've always attributed to Hasty Renegade of professional admiration of Garrus from a distance, tempered with a healthy dose of rivalry. Since they're both snipers, they very rarely go on missions together, and when Hasty Renegade explored Garrus' dialogue tree in Mass Effect 2 I was conscious of reacting with a mixture of sympathy and renegade-ish disdain for his letting his emotions get the better of him no matter how much he pretended not to be. This dynamic is potentially interesting in the way it provides a perspective on interaction between inside the story and outside the story through player-performance.
  • "Nonrepresentative" keeps bubbling to the top of my mind. My question is "Nonrepresentative of what?" My preliminary answer "the tradition." For me at least this seems to be the first direct evidence of communication of a tradition that in the days of the bards was associated above all with two things: professionalism, and the Muses. To tell me that my Mass Effect 3 performance is nonrepresentative is to tell me that I lack a relation to some font of game-performance inspiration. Many blog-posts in that vein, I think, to come.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The siren song of the Renegade

After some multiplayer with AcademyofDrX that came out of the blue, I've decided to take my Renegade in to rescue the Turian Primarch. There's something about her that makes me think she wants to be the first into the galactic battle, and that she wouldn't let the Paragons get in ahead of her.

The difficulty is that the amount of time I have to spend running around looking for things suits my feckless Paragons much better than it does her. . .

And hello, Garrus! Thought I'd lost him in this career.

Planning my performances

Career 3 ("Perfect Paragon") is going to be my cautious/highly-elaborated career. I'll take every assignment, search every bit of space that seems to have a reasonable likelihood of yielding materiel to help the cause.

Career 1 ("Hasty Renegade") is going to be my "How much can I salvage?" career. I'll go straight for the jugular and continue her tradition of cutting corners in the interest of getting results.

Career 2 ("Pragmatic Paragon") is going to be the career I try to play for verisimilitude. I'll attempt to react quickly, in accordance with my ideas of what I myself would do, in the interest of trying to find my "real" relationship to the character, outside of the kind of analysis I want to try to do on 1 and 3, and more importantly among the careers.

That said, it probably makes sense to play out career 2 before I do the more involved 3 and 1. Right now, I'm in Perfect Paragon, cautiously exploring the galaxy map and considering the Cerberus outpost Admiral Hackett has advised my PC to deal with. I'll probably see if I can take care of that, then switch to Pragmatic Paragon.

I'm still on Narrative combat.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"A nonrepresentative Mass Effect experience"

Those are the words with which Mass Effect 3's description of "Narrative" difficulty closes, in the game's options-menu.

When one of my students, already tens of hours into the game on Thursday (when I was perhaps an hour in on career paths 1 and 2), told me about the two "Narrative" settings--which I hadn't seen, and hadn't read about since I have such a hard time distinguishing hype from actual news that I no longer read about games ahead of time unless (see HALO) I'm critically invested in the hype itself--I wanted to cancel class and drive home instantly to set my game on these settings and see how it made me feel.

I still haven't used the "No Decisions" dialogue option, located under a section of Options labelled "Narrative," which, if I understand correctly, turns conversations into cutscenes, but I played for an hour yesterday with the "Narrative" combat option.

I loved it. When a homeric bard sang a battle-lay, the spears went straight through the warriors' hearts, unless the battle were a very distinctive one--you know, a boss-fight. The bards knew that their practomimes made their audiences feel more heroic that way, just as makers of westerns and war-movies know that enemies always die quickly.

I suspect, by the same token, that I'll hate "No Decisions" dialogue, which, at least according to my initial reaction to the idea of the mechanic, would have the opposite effect on my feeling about the performance-materials of the game. I plan to save one of my careers, turn that option on today for half an hour or so, then load the save and say goodbye to "No Decisions" dialogue forever. I can't imagine that BioWare isn't tracking how many people are using which options, so I'll be very curious as to whether we either hear anything about the statistics or, maybe more importantly, "No Decisions" dialogue returns in future games.

"Narrative" combat is not new; both BioWare and Bethesda games have always had ways to make things easier on older players' aging reflexes. What is new is calling the lowest setting "Narrative," and characterizing that setting as "nonrepresentative." I can't wait to unpack this mechanic further, but one wonders whether the first bard to sing about Achilles' withdrawal from battle, and the first bard to sing about Odysseus lying, cheating, and stealing his way home, were similarly characterized as "nonrepresentative."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why I want to trace these Mass Effect careers

Here's what I'm most interested in. To what extent does one career actually make my performance either 1) substantively different (by "substantively" I mean different in what gets coded into a save file) or 2) emotionally different--that is, in the way it feels to me--in another career, and why, and how?  I can already see that an irrevocable decision made in one career makes it feel very different to make a different choice in another career, even with something as simple as the Normandy's surgeon.

I suppose that in the back of my mind there's a looming question of a nearly odious nature: with Mass Effect 3, has BioWare created a work unlike any previous work of art in the combination of the plasticity of its performance materials and the irrevocability of the most important choices it affords?

Mass Effect career 3 choices

I don't know if this will be valuable even to me, but why not?

  • "Acquired war asset" Diana Allers (journalist)
  • Went to hospital before council to see Ashley (couldn't even bear not to do this on my Renegade; on that career it's Kaiden, not Ashley, who's alive, and I'm considering romancing him)
  • Saw Dr. Chakwas alive (dead on my other careers, I think) in the hospital. Took her as Normandy's surgeon. Can't deny that that felt awesome. In particular, it felt awesome precisely because Chakwas is dead in my other careers, and that I didn't take a surgeon at all in career 2.
  • Thinking I may start a fourth career to see what the default for the non-player of the first two games is like.
  • Went into Bailey's office before council and saw my old journalist nemesis. Saul Tigh as Bailey is something I'd love to spend some time thinking about.
  • Discovered, and made extensive use of, the X button to get through long cutscenes.
  • Did not use Renegade power on journalist nemesis; was typing and failed to use Paragon power and so had to re-load and go through hospital and council again.
  • Bought all volumes of poetry at hospital Sirta terminal.
  • Took the Paragon power, and am overjoyed. Asked journalist-nemesis, to whom I'd been nice in ME and whom I'd punched in ME2 to "keep asking the hard questions."
Am using the voice commands as much as possible in this career. I still need time, I think, but being able to perform a version of the lines is really interesting, and may be a literal game-changer for me.

Living Epic--making it really live?

Yet another idea for re-purposing this blog in the wake of my activity on Play the Past: keeping track of my actual living of epic, beginning with Mass Effect 3. My ME3 careers:
  • Female renegade, soldier, sniper with fully-developed adrenalin rush. She cut corners in ME2 and ended up losing four of her companions. Romanced no one.
  • Male paragon, adept, spammer of Singularity. Messed up at the end of ME2 and similarly lost four companions. Romanced Liara in ME and no one in ME2.
  • Male paragon, adept, spammer of Warp. Got the 100% ending of ME2. Romanced Liara in ME and Jack in ME2.
Here's why I think this will be worth doing: I don't know of any other accounts of multiple parallel performances specifically directed at analyzing the performance materials and their relation to the actual performances.

The first thing I'm interested in talking about is the "Narrative" combat difficulty, which, I'm told by the game itself, gives "a nonrepresentative Mass Effect experience." It may be nonrepresentative, but when you're playing 3 careers, it's really great.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Roger's up to, January 2012

  • In talks with awesome people like David Carlton and Mattie Brice about making two VGHVI Thursdays a month into podcasts, one of them being the first Thursday symposium, the other being a single-player night (starting with Skyrim, huzzah) probably on third Thursdays. Stay tuned.
  • Finishing up my submission to GLS8.0, a worked example about mapping learning objectives to play objectives in Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ.
  • Getting unexpectedly excited about THATCamp Games in less than two weeks. The bootcamp the practomime team is going to run may be a model for the future.
  • Looking forward to Operation ΚΛΕΟΣ 3.0 in the spring semester, which starts a week from tomorrow. I think I may finally have nailed the balance among Homer, video games, and the course ARG.
  • Looking forward to using Operation ΚΛΕΟΣ to bootstrap myself into the Bethesda article that will complement what I think is the very cool BioWare chapter coming out in this book.