Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009
In the case of fashion, rules exist that can at least be conformed to and learned in order to succeed. And isn't that the nature of playing a game anyway?

Game critics and journalists have been talking for years now about the appeal or lack thereof of video games for a female audience.  While there are numerous attempts at creating games for girls, the deluge of low budget Barbie and Bratz games doesn’t do much to capture a more mature audience.  The Sims is one of the most overtly successful attempts to tap into this demographic, though the virtual doll house that The Sims essentially is was successful among both male and female gamers. It was even called Doll House in its earliest conception –- assumedly the change had to do with capturing the attention of gamers across gender lines.  The resulting game was treated with a bit more maturity and had an addictive and well thought out style of game play.


While female gamers have always been interested in other genres like shooters, RPGs, puzzle games and the like, The Sims managed to capture a model of traditional female activity (playing “house”) and actually make it into a game that women would want to play.  As a result, such success makes me wonder how what might be considered traditionally feminine interests might be translated into games that girls could grow up with and continue to enjoy as adults.  The thought has crossed my mind that televisions shows with high female demographics, like Project Runway or America’s Top Model have the potential to be winners as game licenses.  The problem, however, for dealing with translating games oriented towards evaluating style and image is that “style” and “image” seem like concepts that on the face of them are difficult to quantify and become then very difficult to translate into game mechanics.


If one were to play a digital version of Project Runway, which is in and of itself a competition and thus at least game-like, how would an outfit that a player designed be evaluated by a virtual Nina Garcia or Michael Kors?  Because it is assumed that making judgments about what seems to (as Tim Gunn might say) simply come down to “a matter of taste,” any scoring in the game would come down to arbitrary decisions that are either based on the player conforming their taste to a game mechanic or to sheer caprice.  However, that everything is simply a matter of taste when it comes to fashion is simply not true to anyone who is aware of how fashion actually “works.” 


Several games have already confronted some issues related to style and image and been fairly successful in at least providing the gamer with choices about style.  The most obvious example of style and customization is the now nearly ubiquitous convention in games that allows the player to select what their character is supposed to look like and how they dress.  Role playing games are an obvious good fit for such a system where much of the interest of the game lies in developing a character of your own.  Many open world games like Saint’s Row, Grand Theft Auto, and Bully also allow you to either design the overall look of the character that the player will be using or at least make some choices about how the character dresses, and thus, how the character will be viewed by others in their virtual world. There is something very pleasing about styling a character in a game and this in and of itself is “play worthy.”  Intriguingly, around the time of its release, many players of the massively multiplayer online role playing game City of Heroes reported in online forums that they often found themselves spending hours with that game’s character creation system, simply because designing a superhero’s costume was often as fun as, if not more fun, than playing as a superhero. 


That players want to “play” with the creator enough that some of them have called it a “game” in and of itself testifies to the potential pleasure that could be derived from a game based on styling. Cryptic’s new title, Champions Online and character creator has yet to be released (at my writing) but it is already provoking comments like these that indicate a fascination with styling characters:


After seeing the character creator video and having read a lot about the character creator experience I was thinking it would be great if Cryptic did what SOE did with EQII’s release. There was a pre-order (as usual) that contained the character creator as a stand-alone app that allowed you to save a template file to load for later use.


I’m thinking, that one, it would give Cryptic a big pre-order campaign boost to include such a thing, and two would give us a chance to work on making our characters before the game launches since it will probably take a LONG time to do that. Win Win, IMHO.


The sheer robustness of Cryptic’s character creator (which allows for potentially hundreds of thousands of styling options) at the very least suggests that a fashion oriented game could be generated with sufficient tools to create a lot more style options than a DS game would provide.  The question of course remains, how would an artificial intelligence determine whether or not a clothing design is actually any good?


Before answering that question, first, I want to return to my other potentially image oriented game license, America’s Next Top Model, to consider how its interests as a competition would have mechanics that prior games have created precedents for.  Taking photographs is something that a game can obviously (and has) emulated in the past. Limited ways have existed to evaluate the successfulness of photography in video games like Grand Theft Auto and Playboy: The Mansion. In GTA missions in which your rather unscrupulous character has to take blackmail pictures largely just boil down to a very limited evaluation of precision: did you manage to get the intended blackmail victims and their questionable antics in frame?  Playboy: The Mansion, which is a game about putting together issues of Playboy, and thus, photography becomes a major component, treat evaluation in a seemingly less elegant way.  Given the Sims-style networking component of the game, players network in order to provide content for the magazine. From a pragmatic standpoint, the relationship that exists between a Playmate and their photographer coupled with the photographer’s skill is somewhat sensible in determining the quality of pictures produced during a shoot.  One would assume that collaboration of model and artist would matter in saome way.  But it is a limiting factor in that the actual test (in terms of the game’s mechanics) of whether or not the actual images created are erotic is completely arbitrary.  A picture of a model’s elbow can become a 5-star issue cover if the model and photographer really get along well.


The immediate sensibility of the mechanic, though, does begin to touch on one element of style that is obviously important: relationships.  The somewhat less successful fashion oriented version of The Sims, The Urbz, demonstrates this importance and a much more interesting and thoughtful approach to evaluating what “taste” might mean.  The Urbz is predicated on the idea that the character that you will be playing is interested in becoming a fashionista of sorts. Doing so is determined by how well the player fits into various counter cultures that are largely defined by style choices.  Moving between various parts of the city, our urban sim is forced to redesign their own look each time that they meet a new group of people, be they punks, skaters, ravers, or the upper classes.  Character creation, or more appropriately, character recreation becomes a critical element of The Urbz, and while the choices that one makes are not specifically evaluated (as long as you wear clothes that are associated with punk, the punks will like you), it acknowledges an actual rule of fashion and style: consensus. 


Fashion choices like these suggest that “taste” is not the only factor in determining successful style.  Such choices are very much social constructions that depend not only on what the individual likes but how the people that individual interacts with respond to those choices.  The Urbz at least successfully simulates how the consensus of cultures and subcultures effects choices and how conforming to that consensus is potentially beneficial.


Playboy: The Mansion suggests that it is a reasonable guideline that successful photographs depend upon some degree of chemistry between photographer and subject, which shows that there may be other mechanics to help govern a player’s “fashion” score.  Part of what distinguishes games from play is that games tend to need purposes, boundaries, and goals to determine how successful the player is.  The Urbz likewise acknowledges that fashion and style is also governed by social boundaries. This is a major step in recognizing how style needs rules in order to be played like a game and that it already is one.


Watching an episode of What Not To Wear will rather quickly educate the uninitiated in the “rules” of such a game.  Both Stacy London and Clinton Kelly spout copious amounts of rules about what looks best on what kind of body type, how to visually lengthen the leg, enhance the figure, etc.  Likewise, Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn has written a Guide To Style that suggests many similar rules that govern broader social concerns with how to “play the game” of looking good correctly and successfully.  But as anyone schooled in the visual arts knows, illusions are the nature of visual design.  Getting a flat piece of paper to represent distance, depth, and texture are governed by “rules” that actually work.  Surely some of London, Kelly, and Gunn’s rules could be translated into ways of measuring the success of virtual garments or models?


For that matter, much of art history has been interested in examining the way that the mind reacts to visual imagery and what is pleasing or not pleasing to the eye.  From the discovery of and influence of the The Golden Ratio on music, painting, and architecture to psychological studies on the pleasant and unpleasant nature of symmetry and asymmetry, there are a great many choices of rules to help in governing how one can evaluate style with criteria that might allow for a degree of objectivity.  In the case of fashion, rules exist that can at least be conformed to and learned in order to succeed.  And isn’t that the nature of playing a game anyway?


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009
Some of the ideas in Scott McCloud's classic piece offer some interesting insights when applied to games.

When they are first starting out, all forms of media borrow from other forms until they are able to stand on their own two feet. Movies mostly often recreated plays and books for their first few decades to give a recent example. At a certain point, this act of borrowing becomes problematic because the medium must eventually rely on its strengths, yet appropriating new ideas is always a useful tool for innovation. One of the most interesting borrowing of techniques that’s going on in video games is borrowings from graphic novels. For a variety of reasons, abstract concepts in the form of visual symbolism are constantly applied in video games. This is something that is still relevant to both 8-bit graphics and the still awkward characters seen today. Matthew Gallant pointed out in the comments of the above post that Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics develops this concept and lately I’ve been seeing a lot of game designers reference it in their blogs. So, here’s a breakdown of what the book brings to video games.


The most important thing McCloud outlines in his book is how abstraction works in comics. A photograph is an example of something with no abstraction; it is a visual approximation of a person’s face. A smiley face is the ultimate abstraction because it could potentially represent anyone. As McCloud explains, “The more cartoony a face is…the more people it could be said to describe.” (31) Most comics fall somewhere in the middle of these two standards because abstraction allows a person to psychologically project themselves into a character. Citing Marshall McLuhan’s research into driving and inanimate objects, this concept can even extend to vehicles. They become “an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (38) This is extremely important to grasp when looking at a video game. They are constantly balancing between enough abstraction that you project yourself into the avatar while at the same time supporting more realistic graphics and art styles. Many developers balance out their graphics with techniques like the silent avatar or by never letting us see a character’s face. Others rely more heavily on comic book styles by keeping the visual environment that characters inhabit within a comic book or anime template. In all games, some degree of abstraction is needed to allow for projection.


The more complex levels of abstraction come from communicating a projected identity back to the player. McLuhan’s car example is a good one for understanding the inherent problems in this process: nothing physical is actually happening in the game. This relates to the second point that McCloud makes in his book on how symbolism works. The letters that you are reading right now are technically phonetic symbols strung together that represent what these words sound like when spoken aloud. This is only one kind of symbol, another example would a the red circle of a no smoking sign or the icons on your computer. These are visual representations. The phonetic symbol is less abstract than the visual symbol. There is nothing to project into when you are looking at the written word, instead you are thinking about what it means and internalizing that. As McCloud explains, “[Visual] icons demand our participation to make them work. There is no life [t]here except that which you give to it.” (59) He uses the example of a drawing of only his upper body, explaining that our mind is filling in the rest of the details and thinking of him as a whole person despite the literal depiction. 


In terms of games, the most readily applicable place for these ideas is the HUD. A bar that decreases until the red better communicates the player’s health rather than a sentence saying “You are hurt.” One is more abstract and requires our mind to engage with it, while the other is just informing us of information. Where this representation really starts to come into play are in complex RPGs and other games that have extensive interfaces. A game like Fallout 3, which relies heavily on numbers, has to balance this quantatative infromation with other elements like coloring and bars. Sound effects and direction indicators for where damage is coming from also build on this principle of finding ways for the player to project into the game. A fully realized abstract interface should be able to allow the player to visually observe information and physically flinch in a manner relative to that information. The sizzle and dwindling health of your character when they fall into lava, the flash of red when a bullet tags you, these are all ways of feeding information back to the player more smoothly and thus make them “feel” it more.


This is possible because of a principle in comics that McCloud refers to as “closure.” That is, I don’t have to punch you in the face to make you sense a mild approximation of that feeling. Take the example of only seeing part of McCloud’s body yet assuming he is a whole person and transfer that to the notion of action itself. A picture of a man swinging an ax at another person can be followed by an “EEYAA!!” without having to show me an axe mutilated corpse, I can infer the action that has occurred. McCloud explains, “Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.” (68) In film, this would be the same thing as showing a couple kissing and falling into bed before cutting to a shot of the next morning as they lay sleeping together. You don’t have to show the audience a scene of the couple having sex to get the point.


In application to video games, closure highlights yet another reason why comparing film and video games breaks down fairly quickly. Cutting the player’s visual feedback for any reason is problematic, much less removing the visual reaction to an act that they have performed. The player is going to want to see the ax connect, the couple having sex, etc. because they instigated it. Where closure does kick in is explaining the bridge between seeing a bullet hit my avatar and inferring that I have been hurt. The abstract symbols of the HUD, along with its visual representation, communicate that the event happened. The process of closure, due to the abstractions creating it, is what makes the player feel this moment. Like seeing the visual image of a man swinging an axe at a person and feeling horrified, seeing a bullet hit our avatar is communicated through our imagination. The player must actively participate with the game’s imagery and HUD for it to create an immersive experience.


Other portions of the book are interesting but difficult to apply to games. McCloud touts the importance of balancing words and imagery and relying on both to properly communicate a story (156). He highlights several techniques for doing this and the cultural origins of them. The final chapter presents a useful diagram for how an artistic creation starts (idea), develops through a tool (a pen for comics), is observed by a reader (eyeball), and leads to them forming their own ideas. He explains, “Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.” (195) He considers this process a kind of artistic gauntlet and laments how hard that it is to maintain an artistic vision as one makes their way over all of these hurdles.


One can’t help but wonder what a visual diagram for a video game would look like. There have been attempts at it numerous times, but it always ends up a jumbled mess of circles and lines going between developer and player that all connect into a giant explosion in the middle. A few things do remain consistent though. As with all other media, eventually the game leaves the developer’s head and has quite a journey to make before it becomes an idea in the the head of the player.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Aug 28, 2009
A look at the controversy surrounding Shadow Complex and Orson Scott Card.

When Shadow Complex came out last week, it was met with an unusual controversy, which Christian Nutt explored in an article on Gamasutra. The controversy centered around some gamers’ decision to boycott Shadow Complex because of its connection to Orson Scott Card, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Card wrote Empire, a novel about a leftist army taking over the capital, and Shadow Complex is a prequel to that story.


The decision to boycott raises some interesting questions: Is it fair to boycott the game for its connection to Card? Games are not made by a single person, and Card’s contributions to the game are already slim. Before Nutt (who is himself gay) learned of the controversy around the game, he met with Donald Mustard, the creative director and co-founder of Chair Entertainment, the developer behind Shadow Complex, and wrote, “…over an hour after I had initially mentioned it, he wished me well in my long distance relationship with my boyfriend in Michigan. “It worked for us,” he said, referring to himself and his wife Laura.”


That show of support lies in direct contrast to Card’s stated beliefs. In addition, the game is written by Peter David, described by GayGamer in their own look at the controversy as “a straight but extremely gay-friendly comic book writer…He also just “outed” two characters, Shatterstar and Richter, in Marvel’s X-Force, giving the company its highest profile gay relationship yet.” So now there are two conflicting views represented in the creative talent behind the game. To support one is to support the other and to hurt one is to hurt the other. But if we’re taking Card’s, Mustard’s, and David’s ideologies into account, what about the many others who worked on the game? At what point do you draw the line?


And what of the game itself? Shadow Complex actually has nothing to say about homosexuality. It offers no commentary, no opinion, and no mention of anything even remotely related to sexual orientation. However overblown the cries of racism in Resident Evil 5 were, the game did contain some potentially insensitive imagery, so at least there was something in the game itself to get upset over. Not so in Shadow Complex. In fact, Nutt quotes a friend of his in saying “it subverts the Empire universe severely.”


However, Card has been very vocal in his opposition. He’s part of the board of directors for the National Organization for Marriage, a group that seeks to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage, and he’s been quoted saying “Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.” Certainly the degree and high-profile nature of his opposition makes it understandable for someone to want to boycott his works, or anything he’s worked on, out of principal.


To that end, that’s all one can go on: principle. Are you so opposed to Card that you’re willing to hurt David and Chair Entertainment financially? Or vice versa? There is no right or wrong answer; it’s people’s personal beliefs conflicting with the purchase of a video game. The article on GayGamer suggested a rather elegant compromise: “if you’re obviously too disgusted to enjoy the game, avoid it, and speak out. However, if you want to play the game, play it. Enjoy it, but offset the hate: if you buy Shadow Complex, donate $5, $10, $15 if you can spare it to a gay charity.” While the game may say nothing about the controversy now, with more thought and effort being put into game narratives, I wonder how long until the personal and political beliefs of the creators start to find their way into their games. And would this really be a bad thing? As Nutt says, “If we can have meaningful political discussion in other media, we can have it in games.” If anything, it would certainly spur some interesting discussion.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009
If I kill a Cacodemon or a Nazi or a Space Invader, what difference does that action make?

I don’t know if it is sheer coincidence or shrewd marketing foresight that governed that Quentin Tarantino’s re-imagining of Inglourious Basterds and id’s re-envisioning of the classic Wolfenstein FPS arrivred for public consumption in the same week.  Somehow it seems appropriate that Tarantino’s pleasure in providing his audience the chance to play voyeur to a heap of Nazi bashing and id’s return to its roots with what is kind of the original Nazi killing simulator would remind us of how we feel about violence and justice.  It seems that we take enough joy as a post-World War II generation in the witnessing of and even taking a hand in the disposal of the men of the Third Reich tto warrant two big budget media events that would celebrate this similar idea.


The intriguing thing to me about this seemingly well timed reminder of who really deserves to “get it,” though, is in the distinct difference between what a film can provide in considering this experience and what a game provides, which might tell us a little something about how we see ourselves ethically as players of games as opposed to viewers of movies.  As noted, Tarantino’s Nazi slaughter is voyeuristic in nature, but id’s is participatory; Tarantino’s is about witnessing the termination of the “master race,” while id offers the opportunity to take a hand in this extermination.


Since the release of the original Castle Wolfenstein in 1981, Nazis have served as a fairly common enough enemy in a host of games, be they fantastic villains as they are in id’s game about escaping from a fictitious Nazi castle culminating in a final battle with the Fuhrer himself in Wolfenstein 3-D to the more “historical” recreations of the European Theatre in games like Call of Duty.  They seem appropriate enough enemies for a game, though, especially given id’s even more successful cloning of the frantic FPS action of the Wolfenstein in the Doom series.  Like the horrible monstrosities that crawl out of Hell in Doom, the very appearance of the Nazis in the Wolfenstein games tends to provoke a rationale for killing.  Neither game needs to justify much to the player in pointing out that these are the “bad guys” because, for all intents and purposes, there is a presumption on the part of the narrative that we have enough historical and cultural understanding to presume that demonic hordes and Nazis essentially boil down to the same thing: monstrosity.


I do emphasize appearance in drawing this conclusion as Doom plays on some fundamental levels of the human psyche (appropriately enough, those most likely arising from the id) in demarcating its villains through pure ugliness and difference.  The first time that I ever saw a Cacodemon in Doom for instance (those creatures that resemble a gooey mound of flesh surrounding a giant levitating eyeball), I immediately wanted desperately to make it go away.  Luckily, I just happened to be holding a shotgun at the time.  Much like being surprised by a bug as big as your hand crawling near your shoe, your first instinct is to kill that thing because it is too alien to bear or, more simply put, too ugly to live.


The swastika and the uniform of the SS seems to provoke a similar response in anyone in the least familiar with the actions of the Nazis during World War II, and thus, like that massive bug they become something alien and too ugly to live.  Most importantly, they are reasonable to kill.


As noted earlier, this otherness is very appropriate to games because it is an easy way of representing evil without much need for narrative and ethical justification for the player to actually participate in a behavior that might otherwise seem morally questionable.  But it is also appropriate given that video games despite being participatory media have a seemingly morally neutral quality in the choices that they represent to the player.  If I kill a Cacodemon or a Nazi or a Space Invader (the original “monstrous” alien Other in the shooter genre), what difference does that action make?  Rather than merely taking pleasure in seeing justice meted out or the destruction of something “other” to myself as I might in a film, I have participated in the act of destroying pixels, and that act amounts to little more than the “termination” of flashes of light on a screen.


Nevertheless, what the Nazi killing simulation does remind us (especially when we begin to make comparisons to other games) is that simulation is still representational and meaningful and that representation does matter to us in a way that the more clinical ways of considering what simulated murder amounts to (flashing lights on a screen) fails to address.  While politicians and parents might level criticism at the violence in Wolfenstein, it seems unlikely to me that anyone is upset that the game represents “violence against Nazis.”  However, I find it more likely that criticism of Grand Theft Auto might focus on violence generally but also specifically on violence against women.  Clearly even the notoriously libertarian Rockstar seems to recognize that what is being presented in a simulation and how it is represented may make a difference in an audiences’ reasonable or unreasonable reactions to such seemingly “unreal” activities.  For instance, I remember reading an interview with someone over at Rockstar a number of years ago concerning what fans often requested for upcoming Grand Theft Auto titles.  The developer said that while fans often wanted to know why there were no children or dogs in GTA games that—given the freedom the series affords in taking violent action against others—including character models of children and dogs was simply “not funny,” and thus, not in the developer’s plans for forthcoming titles.


Frankly, anyone who felt squeamish (as I did) upon learning that you had a choice to either rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in Bioshock understands what this Rockstar developer is getting at.  While simulating killing may be an activity that is functionally morally neutral, a lot of the experience of playing a video game and how we react and respond to the choices that we make have to do with the packaging and appearance of those choices.  Representation matters.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 25, 2009
A closer look at the narrative devices used in Mass Effect that better support its game design. Spoilers abound.

A Bioware RPG is a combination of RPG power accumulation and ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ decisions through a fairly vast narrative structure. Everything from your choice of gender, how you grew up, and what military background you have will lead to unique combinations of missions and encounters. Each player experience, while having common elements, is tailored to fit the user. What has always been compelling about these games is their sprawling narrative and the select moments that the player is allowed to make distinct moral choices during it. I’m going to make the same distinction between types of choices that Daniel Floyd makes in his excellent Youtube videos. If the decision in the game has a clear benefit in the game design, it is not really a moral choice. Being an asshole and refusing a quest which gives you tons of experience and items is not a decision that questions a person’s values, only their ability to evaluate cost/benefit. The following is a closer look at some of the most affecting choices in Mass Effect and how those are created.


An interesting distinction about games from other media is that the scenes in a book or film that a passive audience will take for granted often do not work in video games. Anthony Burch, from Destructoid, makes this point in one of his Rev Rants. You can’t just tell me that an NPC is my best friend and suddenly expect me to care about them. You can’t presume that the player, as the active participant, accepts the burdens of their friendship in the same way that they will watching two people on a screen interact. You have to get the player to like the person. Half-Life 2 has us spend hours upon hours with characters before we are expected to care about one being at risk, The Darkness engages us with our girlfriend through its infamous couch interaction. The key to Mass Effect’s success is by instilling the player with a real sense that their choices in the game matter. It does this by having the player work with characters and establishing their role in the game from the start.


The game starts with people discussing if you are able to become an elite government agent. Your first mission is to rescue a colony under attack while another agent, a Specter, observes you. Failing this mission is linear, but it sets the stage for the player wanting to prove themselves. Your first task is to show that the incident was not your fault and that you should become a Specter. A player review in a forum post by Kateri comments, “This game really makes you feel like a commander, with all the associated baggage. I demanded respect, because I felt like I deserved it. I honestly wanted to prove myself, I really identified with the goals and ideals that were presented to me, in terms of the paragon-type ideals. I wanted to set a good example, and be admired as a leader.” This motivation is established through numerous tiny details and encounters. Humanity has not yet proven itself to the other alien races and is not yet allowed on the Intergalactic Council. While we are on board the Citadel we encounter jealous aliens who do not believe we deserve such privileged status. We encounter others, like the Turians, who do not think we are ready to join them. When your character is finally given Specter status, they are the first human being to gain this rank. Between the diplomats and rival species, the game’s narrative makes sure to establish a feeling that this new rank is important through missions and character interactions.


The choices remain valid because choosing philosophically conflicting decision will not negate your character stats, only which missions you can go on. One of the problems in the KOTOR games is that an evil decision subtracts points from your good powers and vice-versa. These negate combat and other perks, tying the player into behaving in a way that is always dictated by the game design rather than any personal choice. Nick Dinicola expands on this point, “The karma system is a narrative shortcut: Instead of writing consequences into the story, a player is given points and measures consequence by how full the “good” or “bad” meter is.” Praising Mass Effect later in the piece, he points out that its morality system frees players up to actually make a decision rather than just calculate which one boosts their abilities the most. 


The game also takes efforts to simplify moral decisions by clearly designating which dialogue options are ‘Paragon’ and which are ‘Renegade’. It creates a sort of built-in conscience for the player because it makes sure they know which choice is being rude in the game’s context and which is being noble. Rather than just accidentally saying something offensive, the decision is deliberate. Normally the problem with most morality choices, even game design neutral ones, is that when you’re asking someone to choose between doing something awful and something nice they are generally going to pick the nice choice. In a rant on moral choices, Anthony Burch points out that in field tests of Fable they discovered about 95% of players choose the good path. 4% will try to be evil but become so disgusted with the constant feedback that they quit and go back to the game telling them that they’re a good person. Very few actually pursue choices when the game constantly tells them that what they chose was evil. Mass Effect’s morality system circumvents this problem because it’s a decision about how things should be done. Being a paragon just means being nice, being a renegade just means being blunt and a bit sarcastic. There are even quests in the game that can only be solved by being a Renegade to validate both philosophies. One of the first quests in the Citadel involves a man who has lost his wife and wants her body from the military. Only by being an insensitive Renegade will he finally understand that they need to study the weapons that were used on her to save more lives.


One of the largest moral choices is who you wish to engage with romantically. Depending on your choice of gender, you can either flirt with a male or female human who is fairly complex if you talk to them. The human female, Ashely Williams, comes from a military background and is ideologically conservative. She is defensive about her family, believes in God, and criticizes you for trusting aliens excessively. Kaiden, whose resemblance to Carth from KOTOR is hard to not notice, can be described as Kateri puts it a “32 year old telekinetic virgin”. For the player uninterested in either of these people, the blue alien Liara (whose species can have sex with anyone) will be propositioning you from the moment you meet her. This choice of lovers is given extra weight by the game’s play on both gender and duty during the Virmir mission. You must choose between Kaiden or Williams to go on a suicide mission. When you reach the final leg, you must pick which to save. Since you’ll probably have been flirting with one of them by this point in the game, the decision has extra weight for any player. Choose the one you like and you are playing favorites. Abandon them, and you’re losing a romantic option.


That’s easily the most powerful choice in the game and it achieves this state because of the personal investment of the player. You have spent time developing a relationship with these characters and your choice impacts them. Other, minor and less deep choices, revolve around mostly personal views and impressions. A drug addict begs you to get him some mental stimulants that he is clearly overdosing on. You can persuade him to get treatment or bully him into giving it up. Towards the end choosing to save the alien Council or order the Human Fleet to focus on the enemy forces has some merit, but tends to suffer from that same problem of one choice obviously being more reasonable. My personal favorite was the decision of whether or not to spare the Rachni Queen. The Rachni are a deadly race of aliens who appear during one mission in a direct homage to the film Aliens. After hours of fighting through the deadly creatures, we encounter the Queen and finally get a chance to speak with her. She explains that the corporation corrupted her young and that she will not harm humanity. The Rachni almost wiped out civilization centuries ago and she is the last of her kind. Choosing between killing her and letting her live stumped me for more than a few minutes.


The game is not without its missed opportunities. Almost all of the villains you face are under mind control and thus not really trying to justify their behavior. The ultimate villain, an ancient robot, explains that it wants to exterminate all organic life because it just wants to. When you ask an informed computer near the end of the game why the evil robots bother to kill all life every 50,000 years it responds, “What does it matter?” It’s a surprisingly uninteresting villain for the precise reasons that the other moral choices in the game are so powerful. You invest time and energy into engaging with these characters, then find out there isn’t really much logic to their actions. The potential quandary of an interesting villain, and thus a more interesting conflict, is abandoned and the result is that the player has no issue with shooting robot after robot. Still, for a game that wants people to think about their conduct, particularly one that involves shooting so much, perhaps Mass Effect holds together by not having us mull over everything.


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