Games

Bioware Finally Gets the Morality Meter Right in 'Mass Effect 3'

Mass Effect has always had trouble presenting its morality system to players -- that is, until Mass Effect 3.

The morality system of Mass Effect has always been a blessing and a curse. It’s just nuanced enough to allow players to create morally murky and interesting characters, but BioWare’s insistence on maintaining a binary morality means it could never be as complex as it wants to be. Last week, fellow Moving Pixels blogger Jorge Albor wrote about the troubles that Mass Effect has always faced with its morality system on a narrative level, but I think BioWare has had just as much trouble simply figuring out a way to present this system to players in a manner that is clear and understandable as a metric.

The morality system of Mass Effect is a clear evolution of the morality system from BioWare’s previous game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.On the surface, they seem identical. Instead of "Jedi," we now have something called a "Paragon," and instead of "Sith," we now have something called "Renegade. However, the difference lies in the presentation. Rather than measure morality with a single meter that moves back and forth between good and bad, Mass Effect features two meters that measure both extremes at the same time. This means that our characters don’t have to be just “good” or “bad;” they can be a bit of both. This was a revelation at the time, but this presentation has its downsides as well.

The picture above is the morality system as it was presented in Mass Effect, with two curved meters surrounding Shepard’s head, one blue and one red. Jorge already touched on the problems with the color scheme:

The blue and red color coded options gave newcomers the false impression that these decisions represented “good” and “bad”, as though they were judgements passed down from some fictional deity. In actuality, these decisions more closely adhered and continue to adhere to the “lawful good” and “chaotic good” alignments established by Dungeons & Dragons. They represent how closely Shepard “follows the rules” in pursuit of good, a measurement of divergence from a lore-based code of conduct. ("The False Dichotomies of Mass Effect", PopMatters, 29 March 2012)

However, the biggest problem with this presentation is the fact that there are two separate meters to begin with. The separation allows BioWare to measure both sides simultaneously, conveying the idea that morality is not an either/or system, but separating Paragon from Renegade also reinforces the idea that morality is an either/or system (that Paragon is not Renegade and Renegade is not Paragon) and that they’re so different that they can’t even be measured within the same meter. In fact, taking into account how they’re place around Shepard’s head, they seem to be the exact opposite of each other. They even fill in from opposite directions. This presentation implies that Paragon and Renegade are two completely different types of people when they’re really not.

Also problematic is the fact that players have been trained to fill meters as much as possible by nearly every genre of video games. Filling a meter is good, it means progress, it means a reward, and it means we’ve completed something. Gamers have a natural desire to fill a meter, but since we can’t fill both Paragon and Renegade, then we naturally tend to min/max one side of the moral spectrum even if this is inconsistent with the character in our heads. When playing the first Mass Effect, how many people just chose a Paragon action because they wanted to play as the “good guy” without actually considering the context around the decision? I know I did. We’ve been conditioned to assume that two opposing meters like this represent a concrete binary system. To be one means that we can’t be the other. But this isn’t true. As Jorge stated last week, it’s a false dichotomy.

The presentation of morality gets better in Mass Effect 2. It’s a similar set up, but the two meters have been moved closer to one another. They’re now on the same level so that they appear more equal. This is an improvement as it doesn’t present them as total opposites -- more like mirror images of each other -- but it’s still problematic because Paragon and Renegade actions are not always mirror images of each other. As Jorge wrote last week, the context of the situation is everything:

The Krogan are depicted as a brutal and vicious race of aliens, more comfortable on the battlefield than in politics. With few exceptions, their culture values strength and lethality above all else. Mercy and diplomacy may appear as a sign of weakness. It is only natural then when a traditionally “Paragon behaving” Shepard takes Renegade actions. Pulling the right trigger to brutally display Shepard’s strength is just a way to fit in among the locals and gain their confidence.

Such context adds nuance to the overall morality system (and to Mass Effect's credit it never punishes the player for jumping from Paragon to Renegade every other conversation), but that nuance isn’t reflected in how your morality is measured.

Mass Effect 3 overhauls the presentation and finally gets it right. The most obvious difference is that there is now just one meter instead of two and that this single meter gets filled with both a blue bar and a red bar. This new look helps rid us of the notion that Paragon and Renegade actions are polar opposites, and it reinforces the idea that they’re not mutually exclusive. Getting points in either one fills the meter just the same.

That title of the meter is very different as well. Mass Effect 3 is the first game in the series to actually label it, and it’s important that it’s not labeled “morality,” even though this whole system is casually referred to as a “morality system.” The Paragon and Renegade metrics are simply labeled “Reputation.” It’s a smart choice of words since “reputation” implies something more fungible and variable than “morality.” The latter is an explicit expression of Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, while the former is just an opinion.

With a single glance at this new presentation, we understand that Paragon and Renegade don’t mean “good” and “bad,” encouraging players to be a mix of both, and the layout doesn’t favor one option over the other. (Although if Paragon is always above Renegade that’s a subtle suggestion that Paragon is better than Renegade, but I don’t know if this is the case. Every picture that I found online showed a character that was overwhelmingly a Paragon, so maybe it’s on top simply because the bar is bigger.). Putting both qualities into one meter also prevents us from wanting to min/max one side. Since points from both choices fill the same meter, we’ll earn progress no matter which one we choose.

In 2007 when the first Mass Effect came out, the ideas behind the morality system were ahead of its mechanics. Thankfully, the mechanics have caught up just in time, since Mass Effect 3 is filled with the some of the most morally murky decisions of the entire series. This time, the presentation reflects that.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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