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Friday, Mar 26, 2010
Continuing my look at the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2, this week I write about Zaeed, Jacob, Samara, and Grunt.

Continuing my look at the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2, this week I write about Zaeed, Jacob, Samara, and Grunt. Next week I’ll finish the remaining squad members and offer some concluding thoughts.


Zaeed
Zaeed’s loyalty mission is given to us the moment that we pick him up. He’s been tasked with liberating a refinery from the Blue Suns mercenary group. Zaeed seems like a typical merc when we first meet him, a man with no concerns other than his missions. But when we actually land at the refinery, the mission quickly becomes far more personal. We learn that Zaeed is actually a co-founder of the Blue Suns but was betrayed by his partner Vido Santiago. Naturally Zaeed wants revenge, but the narrow scope of his revenge and the exact motivations behind it betray subtle details about his character.


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Thursday, Mar 25, 2010

Having now completed the first large-scale expansion for Dragon Age: Origins, I have this to say: Death to Text!


Bioware, you’ve spoiled me. All your quality voice acting has left me unwilling and uninterested in reading on screen ever again, at least while I’m playing your games. I loved Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. I’ve played through both of them, twice. I love dialogue trees and chatting with my fellow party members and all the rest. I don’t even mind the fact that Dragon Age looks kind of terrible and everyone’s swords float three inches away from their backs. It’s an age of dragons after all, so, um magic!


But what I can’t stand anymore is all the text. I want to hear my character! I want to hear my veteran rogue speak some lines besides, “Done and done,” and “That was easy.” I want her to be a character where right now she’s just sort of this blank faced, voiceless mannequin surrounded by much more interesting people. Mass Effect‘s choice to have a dedicated voice actor (two in fact) and a dedicated name for the main character was clearly the better way to go. I get that this would be a challenge for a game with two different genders and three different races. But you know what? It would’ve been worth it. I hope that the next game does. Because right now, the conversations aren’t working dramatically. I hear an actor speaking one side of the conversation, and I read some necessarily short dialogue options for the other. It just doesn’t work anymore.


And if there were a real, live voice actor behind my hero, you could also do something about the clunky way that you hand out side quests. Throughout the Awakenings expansion, I picked up letters or objects that suddenly granted me a new quest. I’d have to pause and open the quest log to see what the hell that was all about. Wouldn’t it be grand if, instead, one of the party members said, “Hey, what did you pick up there?” and then my character explained it to both the party member and me (the player) at the same time? See how elegant that is? Elegant and costly and memory hogging and what not. I know, I know. But I know that you’ve got it in you.


All of which leads me to my biggest gripe, my major complaint, the text that drove me bonkers. If I’d had a real character with a real voice, you never would have had the gall to put that tacked on ending in Awakenings. There’s just no way. I see how not having a voice is a problem there because the moment calls for the hero to make a speech, to say something profound. We won! Let’s talk about that. I wonder what happened to our other friends? But no, the quickest end boss cut scene in history. Enemy defeated, give it a blank look, turn to leave. Cut to . . . text boxes! Text box after black text box.


Even without a main character supported by a voice actor, someone should’ve been narrating this stuff. There should’ve been some animations. As it is, the game just ends, and we get to read about the consequences in squinty little white letters. The first game did this too of course but only after we’d had a chance to watch a long, interactive sequence and then talked with all our old comrades. Here, nothing but dry, history book-style text.


Look, there’s a time and a place for the written word. Right now for instance, with me ranting about it this is a good time and place. The finale of an interactive experience? Not the place. If I’d been reviewing this expansion, it would be a significant ding against Awakenings‘s final score. The disappointment was that big.


In many ways, Dragon Age: Origins is only a partial success. As noted, it looks less than thrilling a lot of the time. The combat can be clunky and frustrating. But the story, ahhh . . . the story. That’s what keeps me coming back for more. I’ll happily play along with the graphics and combat as is if only Bioware will just live up to their true, fully voiced storytelling potential.


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Wednesday, Mar 24, 2010
Hippolyta requires only perfection of the player. How elegant is that?

Last week I extolled the elegance of the shotgun in video games (Elegance is a Shotgun”, PopMatters.com, 17 March 2010).  As a tool, it rather perfectly fits into a definition of the quality of elegance as something simple, basic, and efficient.  The only real complaint that I received about this observation is that the shotgun is a weapon in games that tends to make play easier.


Now while I do think that being “easy” in some ways only furthers my point (after all, being simple and being easy are concepts that are often synonymous with one another), I do have to admit that in gaming the most elegant games are often highly complex and difficult to master, maybe in spite of being easy to learn.  Go or chess are games that, on the face of them, are elegant and simple in terms of design and the ability to teach someone the basics of how to play, yet these are games whose ability to master is not exactly “easy” to accomplish.


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Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010
The funniest thing about Dante’s Inferno is that the only people who will really enjoy the game are the fans of the poem.

Dante’s Inferno is not a game for someone expecting to experience a precise reading of the poem. Video games and linear storytelling don’t get along very well, and unless you’re dealing with a genre built around delivering content, the plot is always going to remain in the background. An interview with the game’s Creative Director, Jonathon Knight, at Gamasutra explains their approach, “The Divine Comedy is a three part piece that’s 14,000 lines, and… there’s a lot going on there, and I think the game is clearly taking the top couple of layers of that, but it does not go deep into the more theological, or philosophical, or what-have-you elements of the poem. Ultimately the game is this gateway into Dante’s vision of Hell, but it’s not meant to replace a reading of the poem, obviously, which is much more sophisticated” (Christian Nutt, “The Road To Hell: Creative Direction in Dante’s Inferno”, Gamasutra, 5 February 2010). Knight explains later that they wanted to rely more heavily on the unique ability of video games to create a sense of place by having the game be a brawler but featuring elaborate setpieces to break up the fighting. Since the game relies heavily on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of the poem, I’ll be citing that translation for this post.


Boiling down the first book of the Divine Comedy to its surface elements is a bit trickier than it sounds because you either think the poems are about three stages of the afterlife or that they’re about Dante’s spiritual transformation as he grapples with accepting God’s authority. Dante himself wrote in a letter to Can Grande della Scala, “The subject…of the whole work, taken literally, is the condition of souls after death, simply considered…But if the work be taken allegorically, the subject is man, how by actions of merit or demerit, through freedom of the will, he justly deserves reward or punishment.” (172) Given that the game re-imagines Dante as a Crusader who wields Death’s scythe, who can absolve damned souls to Heaven, and who can shoot super spirit crosses using a crucifix, it seems safe to say that the game is not taking the literal approach to the poem.


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Monday, Mar 22, 2010
The inaugural episode of the Moving Pixels podcast, a discussion of video games and culture.

Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Moving Pixels Podcast.  For the initial editions of this new feature at PopMatters, we will be hosting a mini-series of sorts.  A number of regular contributors to our Multimedia Section and the Moving Pixels blog here at PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams, Rick Dakan, Nick Dinicola, and Thomas Cross, will be spending the next six weeks discussing the topic of storytelling in video games. 


For our first episode, we decided to look at “The Role of Story in Video Games,” focusing our discussion on the history of story in video games and how gaming has been transformed over the past few decades in light of narrative becoming an almost inseperable part of the game enthusiast’s experience of the medium.


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