Sunday, April 15, 2012

I Love Mass Effect

I love Mass Effect. I love the ending, I love the journey, and I love the beginning. I’m a science fiction geek. However many books you’ve read I’ve read more. The vast majority of those books were, the until recently, rather niche genre generically called Sci-fi/Fantasy. Back in the day when Mystery novels had their own section, as did Biography and Romance, Fiction and non-Fiction; there was Sci-Fi Fantasy. We didn’t even get separate shelves to house both genres. To further my habit I had to wade through shelves and shelves of lesser books, to get to the diamonds in the roughs; worlds agleam in all the best that Man could be. Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkien, Clarke, Bova, Jordan; they were my philosophers and guides.

It’s no great surprise then that I became enchanted with the RPG. Fighting the good fight, saving the world from Kefka, sailing the seven seas; I was hooked from the word Go.  Time passed and then came the Dreamcast. Grandia II and Skies of Arcadia gave me story and the vast worlds to enjoy them. Then came the Xbox and I was hard put to find them, all my friends had the shiny PlayStation that had killed my Dreamcast, but I stuck with it for Morrowind, and smaller niche jewels until finally Knights of the Old Republic. Oh I knew who Bioware was but I didn’t really play Baldur’s Gate, too much for the Nerds, I was a Geek damn it all, I didn’t need PC’s! Then came Jade Empire, and I knew I had found something worth following. Then the 360 was released and lesser games came out but nothing particularly memorable until Mass Effect. 

Even from the beginning Bioware said they’d make a trilogy. Back then the Xbox had barely survived five years and nobody gave the 360 much chance of seeing many more years than that. With a two year cycle the chance of Bioware completing a trilogy on a single system seemed far and remote. The demo came out at E3 and the combat was weak, the sounds were panned, and it seemed all hope was lost but they remembered Halo and said don’t count them out just yet. And Mass Effect came out in November 2007, running out against that small game called Assassins’ Creed. Three bets on who came out ahead and the first two don’t count. Then Bioware joined with a small company on a meteoric rise called Pandemic, then rolling into a venture capital firm, before being bought by little old Electronic Arts of “challenge everything” mantra. Before you could blink, a company that had barely made a game or two every five years threw out Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. It wasn’t so long ago that not even in the dreams of dreams of video game CEO’s would the billion dollar mark be achieved, before the days of the billion dollar quarters for Blizzard Activision and the monstrous annual tallies of 20 million sold Call of Duty’s, that a RPG not called Final Fantasy would sell multiple millions was virtually unheard of. 

RPG’s are video games best examples of the uniqueness in which superiority can be achieved over movies and books. They are extensive in length and quality. They are the most harshly reviewed genre in all of video games, because they do one thing better than just about anything else, they tell a story. Yes the Bungie and Naughty Dogs of the world are changing the face of video games but for now; they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Tell me the story of Call of Duty 4, Dead or Alive 3, Ninja Gaiden, God of War, or Gears of War. The graphics may get better but by and large video game stories are remarkable for how lousy the stories of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful stories have been over the last ten years. Things are changing but a far slower pace than the graphics of the newest AAA title.

Bioware dared to say story will not only matter, but you’ll never ever forget it. They dared to say yes sometimes our combat is weak (Mass Effect and KOTOR I’m looking at you, you’re successors made you look like ugly stepchildren), but our story is second to none. Their success in doing so has made them targets that were only hurt by the fact that their heads were making the PR circuits spilling BS wherever they went. On a side note video game CEO’s please shut up you ain’t the biggest fish in the sea or the smartest. Talking smack about Final Fantasy, Bioware shame on you; and Bobby come on Activison could practically teach a class on how to kill the golden goose (Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk, Spiderman, Call of Duty, don’t think we haven’t noticed the review scores dipping).
Let’s be perfectly honest the number of companies that can come up with a coherent story, you can count on one hand. Bioware, Bungie, Naughty Dog, Rockstar, and then the list of companies go cold. Sometimes a company like Remedy will hit gold a la Max Payne or Alan Wake but consistently good story telling is hard to find. It's telling that our industry sells tens of millions of copies of COD/Battlefield  and Madden every year and they get glowing reviews, while an rpg’s like Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, Witcher 2, etc, etc, get penalized for the smallest things. Just take a quick gander at reviews of rpg's and you'll notice that they consistently score five or so points on average lower than games of similar technical skill. RPG's generally take half again as long as normal games and sell less than the big budget AAA titles, even the best ones (ME Trilogy, Dragon Age, Final Fantasy, etc.)

Even rpg's like Skyrim with weak stories can slide by showing great graphics, it's not that story is dead it's simply that it doesn't sell games. Much like the big popcorn movies of summer, the video game industry is inundated with shooters, sports games, action games, and fighters. I hate the ending of Memento, couldn't stand that movie for it. And yet not once did I believe that the movie wasn't an impressive achievement. I read fantasy and sci-fi and lately, some of my favorite authors are writing little more than romance novels cloaked in supernatural fiction. It's completely irritating to me, but the fans want it and so the writers write it, but I still love the authors, even if I only read their early stuff.

What I'm trying to say is that this is not a popularity contest, video games are tethered enough as it is by the business model, what does a video game writer take from the hateful speech of the last month against Bioware? How many writers do you think thought to themselves it ain’t even worth the hassle? Actions have consequences; they reverberate long after we've forgotten them. How has this last month helped the video game industry at all? If we don't like you're ending we'll shout it from the rooftops until you do what we say? If you didn't like the ending fine, that's your right. But remember there are only a few companies that even care about you enough to write a good yarn. Did this last month gain you any more companies or help chase them away?

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