Lightning in a Jar

The idle prattle and observations of Mr. Cain

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New Console Generation

It’s on the horizon and I can’t deny that it’s got me thinking.

Traditionally consoles were a cheap, low tech option for playing games with additional social elements. They were cheap because their features were limited, required no manner of assembly (“Simply hook it up to your television!”) and they could be played with friends in the immediate vicinity. Just pick up and play. Good times.

However, the situation has altered: even some gaming rigs are no longer excessively expensive. While intimidating to some consumers, they still boast the age-old advantage of having the option to upgrade themselves as deemed necessary.

In direct contrast to this, consoles have rapidly become more expensive, both in terms of retail and development costs: the PS3 in particular entered the fray costing around £550. I can’t imagine prices are going to suddenly start shrinking for the next generation, especially when both the 360 and PS3 were selling at a loss. This could effectively make a dedicated console more costly than a PC.

The development side of this equation has also resulted in some nasty side-effects: the ever-present desire to push a console’s capabilities to its limits has resulted in a number of very beautiful games being forced to skimp on content as their deadlines begin to loom. In order to compensate for these astronomical development costs, publishers have made it a habit of forcing the high-end console rivals to share most of the Triple-A titles, as well as having them on the PC more often than not. Obviously, this is done in order to widen their potential consumer market as much as possible. Unfortunately, this hurts the incentive to buy a particular console and causes competition to stagnate. The upcoming Wii-U will likely be doing the same, which is just going to compound the problem.

The steep costs are also the reason this particular console generation has lasted so long in the first place.

While this has been going on the PC gaming crowd has benefited the most of the emergence of droves of Indie titles (made widely available by the likes of Steam) developed by fledgling companies who cannot afford to compete in the arena of modern console development. The XBLA and PSNetwork both emulate this approach, but their exclusive titles are outweighed by those for the PC.

Furthermore, all entries in the Seventh Generation of consoles are moving towards having many of the same features as a PC: they can play music, steam videos, network with other consoles and even have web browsers. They are media hubs. All that’s needed is a compulsory keyboard and some crude document-writing software and they’re practically a PC. The upcoming generation of consoles is likely to continue this trend, which somewhat ruins the romance: purchasing what is ostensibly a more costly PC with built-in obsolescence is not an attractive offer.

Of course I understand that economically the creators of these consoles are obviously going to want to release a new version (the tech that went into the 360 and PS3 is quite outdated now), but that doesn’t really allay my concerns that the advantages consoles used to offer are have been lessened significantly in the current era.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my 360.
Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Filed under consoles next-gen video games xbox 360 360 PS3 Wii-U

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For some reason I’ve begun to take solace from the moon.

In the evening I look up at its pearly visage and feel a sense of contentment and connection with friends that are far away; each of them can see this moon and all are somewhere beneath its gaze. It’s very soothing.

I’m not sure why I feel this way about the moon specifically, rather than the sun or anything else. Then again, the sun’s a great big gasbag, so fuck him.

Filed under Thinking Of You

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The Mass Effect 3 debacle - part 2

The first murmurs I heard of ME3 having a disappointing ending was that, apparently, Sheperd perished. Having never expected a sugary-sweet ending to the series, this didn’t bother me all that much and I quickly dismissed these gripes.

However, alarm bells really should’ve been ringing when I consistently heard people mention the “ending”. Singular. ME2 raised the bar significantly over the first game (which had a paltry two endings, albeit each carried a sense of weight) and gave players a massive variety of potential outcomes, all of which depended entirely on your actions and priorities throughout the game. ME3 regresses quite a bit by having three endings that, aside from cosmetics, have no distinctive differences. Yes, their precise descriptions vary, but really they all result in the same thing and it’s not the demise of Sheperd that makes it quite so disappointing. The final encounter leading up to your A-B-C ending makes little in the way of sense.

The Star Child that appears before you claims to have created the Reapers for the express purpose of perpetuating “the cycle”, something that in the past we’ve been told is more complex than we could possibly know and is also a necessity. Turns out the cycle is “Organics will always make Synthetics, who then rise up and destroy them. By wiping out the civilisations we prevent this from happening”, as the Star Child informs us without one drop of irony or realisation. This, as I mentioned in part 1, is ME3 trying a rather hamfisted attempt to impose a theme upon the series that’s never been truly central to the proceedings.

It’s true that Mass Effect has made repeated visits to the Quarian-Geth conflict and the first game depicted the geth as your usual unfeeling robot usurpers. However, the final act showed that the geth were in fact being manipulated the entire time, while ME2 went on to subvert this long-perpetuated trope by portraying the geth akin to confused, frightened children behind closed doors. This conflict was also never the focal point of the games, merely another element of the galactic situation, and really contributed towards the much more prominent themes of Mass Effect, namely “overcoming adversity” and “choice”. To come back at the very, very end of the final instalment and declare that evil robots were always the point of this space opera just doesn’t add up. Even more so if your Sheperd has managed to broker peace with the geth and convince Joker and EDI to hook up - proof that clankers can co-exist peacefully with us squishies if given fair circumstances.

After this we’re told that, since Sheperd now stands before this enigmatic child, the cycle can no longer work for some reason. The Reapers and Sheperd stand on the brink of victory and death respectively, but apparently the Star Child’s also the wizard of fucking Oz and the charade has to end. The offer of three (and only three) alternate solutions to the Reapers murdering trillions of people just begs the question: why did the Star Child never employ these measures to begin with? Why bother with the Reapers at all if he can influence things on a galactic scale? A comment is made that the Reapers “preserve” destroyed civilisations in their own way, yet you never get to highlight the fucking insanity of this statement. He also makes a flippant remark that he “can’t”, but never elaborates and Sheperd never presses the issue.

I feel like I’m on crazy pills.

Especially since, ultimately, your decision results in the destruction of the Mass Relays, removing the backbone of galactic infrastructure and travel from the equation. That’s a devastating blow and I’m honestly a little shocked that Bioware didn’t think through the full implications of this; without the relays there’s no galactic playing field. No way for modern civilisation to sustain itself. It leaves millions stranded and the bulk of the galactic fleet stuck hovering over Earth, where they’re all probably going to starve to death or get eaten by krogan. And if this was always going to be the eventual consequence of stopping the Reaper menace, then all the fighting and struggle really was for naught - all your efforts basically gave everyone about three more years of life. You might as well have rolled over and surrendered to Sovereign for all the good resisting did.

I’m fine with bittersweet endings, a sense of victory tinged with loss can be quite sublime, but this is just downright morbid. There’s no silver lining here.

Then there’s the closest thing we have to an epilogue, which depicts the Normandy attempting to flee the encroaching blastwave. Upon seeing this I was struck with confusion. The logistics don’t add up: the nearest mass relay is beyond Pluto and it would take Joker a while to reach it…which implies that he fled the battle over Earth before it was concluded. He’s a deserter. Especially since the blastwave came from the exploding Citadel, which itself was hovering directly over Earth, and had he been present for the battle he’d have never been able to flee in time. The Normandy then crashes on a random jungle planet and this (given the uplifting score and the content expressions) is treated as something positive, despite being a pretty awful situation; they’re stranded, there’s potentially hostile fauna or weather, they’ve little means of repairs and no way of knowing if they can even digest any food source they might scrounge up. Why is this supposed to be nice? I just don’t get it.

Another misstep is the Galactic Readiness bar, which winds up being basically pointless. While it’s a practical tool for showing your progress to an ideal state, it’s ultimately a hollow lie that has the barest of impacts on the ending: your sole punishment for not reaching at least the halfway marker of the bar is the demolition of Big Ben. That’s literally it. It’s really rather insulting, when you think about it.

I suppose it’ll make Mass Effect 3 rather easy to speedrun. No sense fretting about recruiting the volus bombing fleets or settling your score with the batarians when it’s all going to contribute precisely dick to the outcome. While you could argue it can all be enjoyed for its own sake (and indeed this does have a ring of truth to it) the point is that the game outright manipulates you into believing that these efforts are paramount to your survival. The same applies to any tertiary sidequests one might pick up whilst on the Citadel (“Oh, we lost an important banner here.”, “One of our generals went missing”, “An artifact was stolen” etc) in order to boost the moral of the refugees. S’all pointless since everyone aboard the Citadel fucking dies when the Reapers make off with it. You gave them a confidence boost mere days before they were brutally maimed. Huzzah.

Some greater context: whilst gearing up for ME3, a friend and I decreed that Sheperd should slowly lose his composure over the course of the game, culminating in him snapping at a crucial moment and dooming the galaxy. Whatever it would entail: murdering a squadmate, becoming a deranged gestalt entity, smashing Earth. Whatever. We just wanted to see. Ultimately we were denied even the option to indulge in this throwaway act of sadism (even if it was only for a laugh) simply because the game refused to offer anything of the sort. The basic Paragon-Renegade system of choice wasn’t even avaliable. Granted, neither of us really wanted to burn galactic civilisation to cinders, but the point was that if we did want to then we should be able to; this philosophy was kind of the backbone of the Mass Effect's entire choice system. It's something that's been present from the very beginning, yet here it is bafflingly absent. Why?

Discussion of the ending among friends lead me to suggest an idea that, in hindsight, I’m honestly surprised wasn’t taken as the obvious route by the developers: your choices throughout the game changes the resultant effect of the Crucible doomsday weapon. Seems like the logical step to me, since it allows for almost endless variety, creativity and could foster some neat discussions:

"In my ending the Crucible weaponised Earth’s sun, causing a chain reaction that murdered all the reapers. So, victory was attained, but I lost Earth. You?"

"My Crucible made the Reapers feel overwhelming guilt about their actions and they exiled themselves. What about you?"

"Oh, my Crucible invoked God. Created him. It. Whatever. He smote everyone."

See? It would also encourage replay value, if only to see what might occur depending on who or what you recruit. If you’ve got a massive MacGuffin (or two, I guess) you might as well toy around with what it can do a little. Even just having the missing catalyst component be a person opens up dozens of potential aventues: the teammate you choose to sacrifice results in a different Crucible effect. Same applies if you sacrifice your own Sheperd. Their history and mindset summons a different ending, be it good or bad. Sure as hell makes more sense than the A-B-C buffet we were given…

In the scramble to condemn or dissect the ending, few have taken time to comment on ME3 being rather…lean. The first Mass Effect indulged in things such as the Mako exploration missions and Simon-Says style lock system for random drops. The lock system was subsequently refined for the sequel, whilst the Mako was removed in favour of resource management. This system was paramount to your success in ME2; manage your search probes, your minerals, even your fuel and choose upgrades at your discretion. Each decision actually had an impact on how the climax could play out, thus making it ultimately worth your while in the long run as well as in the immediate.

In contrast to both of these approaches, ME3 has nothing at all. There is no Mako equivalent (such as the more responsive Hammerheard seen in the Overlord DLC) and planetwide searches have little to no difficulty or consequence. There’s also a distinct lack of hub worlds to explore. The Citadel arguably counts, but it’s more something you come back to out of necessity than the curiosity that lead one to explore Omega, the Zakera Ward, Illium and Tuchanka.

Granted, the shootan works just great and is quite a refined system, it’s just disappointing that it’s all on its lonesome when once it was bolstered and supported by other features that made the setting feel much more alive. Some would argue that the game has been “streamlined”, but I’d honestly call it “diluted”. It’s weird how almost no one has commented on this in their reviews. Sure, ME3 isn’t a bad game to play, but I’d say it really comes in third of three in some respects.

Anyway, let’s end this nonsense. How do I feel about the ending? Well, certainly not enraged. More disappointed. I won’t be losing sleep over it, but I’m genuinely flummoxed at how a great trilogy was brought crashing down in a mere ten minutes. The implications surrounding not only this decision, but how the games industry responds to the outcry, could have potentially massive reprecussions for the future of the medium.

All right, that’s quite enough of that. Time to go for a run and prove I’m still a human being.

Filed under Mass Effect Mass Effect 3 Ending tl;dr

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The Mass Effect 3 debacle - part 1

I just wanted to throw in my part before the furore of this issue dies down. Here’s the news: Mass Effect 3’s ending is awful to the point of undermining the entire franchise. There has been much controversy surrounding this issue, the most prevalent being the fans who have campaigned for an amended ending. Bioware have recently caved to these demands.

A common rebuttal towards those who have criticised the ending is that its alteration post-publication would damage the artistic integrity of the work and perhaps video games as a whole.

I take a different stance on this.

It’s important to assess and judge products via the limitations of its chosen medium, and one thing video games can tout in their favour is their interactive and immersive nature. Some games call upon the player to make decisions at a number of crucial junctures, with the Mass Effect series being the logical evolution of this approach; players are given the power to shape their avatar, their decisions and ultimately major circumstances within the game. Everyone’s Commander Sheperd is unique and this is viewed as a plus, rather than some irritating smokescreen that marrs “canon”.

Interaction between product and player is an integral one for video games, as without input they are all but worthless. They have always been interactive products and they’ve rarely been considered sacred upon release: I don’t recall anyone ever objecting to the advent of expansion packs. Expressed distrust of DLC is more due to the modern tactics of the companies than people being unhappy with having more content.

Based on what I said two paragraphs back, I’d also say that those who are demanding Mass Effect 3 remain unaltered are viewing the work akin to a book, television show or film. That there is one voice driving the creative force and that voice is law.

Yet video games are not the product of a singular vision. In fact I don’t think it would be unfair to brand them as a wholly collaborative effort (this is something that Valve, a studio considered titans of the industry, have attempted to convey via their credits reel lacking any assigned roles). An original vision will always be made to compromise multiple times on the road to a finalised product, whether through evolution of ideas and themes, impracticalities or just being told upfront that the idea is a poor one for what you’re trying to achieve. The key difference is that all this goes on behind closed doors, so we are not privy to the pitfalls that litter the creative process, which has made it that much easier to vilify those who demanded change – for the better – to ME3 post-release.

Video games are in a fairly unique position in that fan feedback can often have an impression upon design priorities in subsequent projects. This is always taken as a positive aspect of the medium, rather than a nuisance, and has a pretty long tradition. It cannot suddenly be detrimental to ask for more of the same, especially when the developer’s choice was one as ruinous as seen in Mass Effect 3.

Furthermore, Drew Karpyshyn (the original lead writer on the series) departed after the release of ME2 – his preliminary notes were subsequently ignored. Does this somehow mean that the entirety of ME3 is invalid from the start, since its head writer was absent from development? Does art only truly become art upon some kind of official release?

ME3 may have actually become an unwitting advocate for Death of the Author, and quite a strong one too. A confrontation with what essentially amounts to a magic Star Child informs us that the overarching theme of the series has been organic versus synthetic life forms. Anyone who has played the series would be right to call this out as nonsense (more on this next time. I promise), but because the game insists that this is the case we’re supposed to just sit down and accept it, rather than think about how it just doesn’t make sense. Bioware compliance with fan demand suggests that they themselves do not regard the work as unalterable; had they dug their feet in and refused to alter anything then perhaps they could be commended for at least sticking to their guns and remaining committed to their decisions (however poor we perceive them to be). As it stands they’re dandy with making alterations to their product, so make of that what you will.

Lastly, rumours of upcoming DLC have understandably run rampant since ME3’s ending reared its ugly head, most prominently with the Indoctrination Theory (which claims that ME3’s final act may be the results of prolonged brainwashing). I remain unconvinced, if only because supporters of this theory seem determined to contort facts to liking; throwaway phrases are construed as important cruxes and it just reeks of desperation. Sometimes an orange is just an orange, guys. Unfortunately, this fan theory has also provided Bioware with a unique opportunity to save face. The amount of evidence (pointing to large events and small instances alike) gives Bioware enough ammunition to calmly claim that this was their plan all along (which is compounded by Bioware dropping very smug hints, giving obtuse replies to upfront questions across the likes of Twitter and Facebook, fanning the flames of expectations).

Here’s the thing, though: if Bioware had always planned ME3 to reach retail while effectively lacking its actual ending, then we needn’t bother discussing about their artistic integrity being compromised; they never had any to begin with. If they were willing to hinder their product, their creation, in the name of greed and publicity mongering, then they don’t deserve any respect at all.

NEXT TIME: We look at the ending itself and why it felt like such a horrible misstep.

Filed under Mass Effect Mass Effect 3 Ending Oh lord I need a drink

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Each of us must overcome fear.

There are a lot of things that invoke fear in people - spiders, heights, the dark - but these are only the most prominent of our fears. Without fail everyone answers with a single noun when asked, “What are you afraid of?” It’s always a singular, quantifiable concept. A physical image of their discomfort.

But there is so much more we’re afraid of every single day, whether or not we choose to realise it.

Love, for example, can be such a crippling emotion. When in love, so much of you is devoted to the race to win him or her over, yet there’s a great deal of negativity in that emotion, too, isn’t there? The nervousness you might feel when they speak with you. The petrification that strikes when you wonder if they may not consider you the way you consider them. The nagging doubt that leads you to delicately script your actions so as not to lose their favour in some way. These sensations all culminate in fear; the fear of losing a love is quite a common woe.

Are you afraid of an uncertain future, where the outcome of your given situation is entirely out of your hands? Are you afraid that you do not spend nearly enough time being productive? Are you afraid that you may be cast aside as time goes on?

They’re all real fears. They are universal. They are timeless and they scare all of us.

I just want to hear you admit it.

Filed under Getting A Little Dark Aren't We

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Badass isn’t always best.

When it comes to visual mediums the core traits of a character design are paramount. It must convey many unspoken traits at a glance and there are several key factors that contribute towards a successful character (such as a distinctive silhouette, design versatility, colour palette and effective, iconic imagery). These traits are infinitely flexbile, which is actually one of the reasons why I am disheartened with modern trends in character design; as of late I fear that pop culture has become far too obsessed with the notion that everything has to be, in some way, “badass”.

In our bid to make everything sleek, dynamic and imposing all we’ve succeeded in doing is bringing forth a great, generic mess that’s just trying far too hard to be impressive. To put it another way: if everything is “badass”, then nothing is “badass”. This problem goes one step further when the resulting “badass” design is little more than laughable, such as War from Darksiders, and becomes something of an embarassment. One that’s made so much worse by people still demanding even more of this nonsense as we delude ourselves into thinking these decisions are the best choices.

I have a fondness for certain designs that are, by all accounts, “awkward” or “ugly”. If you’re unsure what I mean, conjure an image of a Dalek, a Mudokon, or even a Tie Fighter from Star Wars. While far from awful, these designs do not adhere to the mental checklist most consumers would level at a creative work - they are not “badass” and yet they are still so full of character. They stand out and excel at the various criteria breakdown I mentioned earlier. I would back the likes of Popeye over any cyborg marine you’d care to name.

Granted, a deliberately awkward design doesn’t guarantee that the resultant character or object will be endearing, but even an unsuccessful experiment is still an experiment. Providing some crucial elements of the design are appealing, there’s no real limit. So why, in something that’s almost a design equivalent of Sameface Syndrome, do we continue to insist on a very narrow field of what is considered acceptable and appealing? It’s becoming a rather pervasive problem and I can’t be the only one who’s a little tired of this. I do hope it’s something we can overcome.

Filed under Character Design Core Appeal Badass

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Commentary by the artist:
This piece is about anger or rather what lies beneath its layers. I believe that the majority of the time, if you dig into your anger, if you peel away its scarred layers, you will invariably find pain at its heart, at its core…  However, this anger does not equal agression, nor violence, it is simply a warning sign, a message from within letting us know that something from either within or from the outside world is wrong. This is why I didn’t give the mouth any sharp teeth.

Commentary by the artist:

This piece is about anger or rather what lies beneath its layers. I believe that the majority of the time, if you dig into your anger, if you peel away its scarred layers, you will invariably find pain at its heart, at its core…

However, this anger does not equal agression, nor violence, it is simply a warning sign, a message from within letting us know that something from either within or from the outside world is wrong. This is why I didn’t give the mouth any sharp teeth.