Category: Video Games

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

Nine Hours. Nine Persons. Nine Doors.

A survival horror visual novel, 999 is much more of a reading exercise with occasional puzzles thrown in than it is a game. This does nothing to dampen the experience, but it will be an obstacle for many. 999 has “cult” written all over it; those with the patience to see the nonary game through to completion several times are almost guaranteed to develop a certain fondness, if not love, for the Gigantic and at least some of its denizens.

Certainly, in my five days playing through the game to absolute completion, I came to think of my DS as the ship itself; few games have ever been quite so genuinely affecting as 999, nor quite so suited to the form despite their unorthodoxies.

Narrative Momentum, Dead Rising and You

Everyone knows that Frank West was anything but an intellectual, but he made do in a situation that he had no idea he was getting himself in to.

Sadly, Chuck Greene makes Frank look like a genius worthy of a Pulitzer. At the start of Case Zero, Chuck is already embroiled in a zombie outbreak, yet he leaves his truck unattended and, apparently, with the keys in the ignition. Is it any surprise that it is almost instantly stolen?

It’s hard to get a grasp on Chuck from Case Zero alone because it boils down to approximately three cut scenes where he says anything – which is very different to Dead Rising where it’s not very long before Frank says “Zombies, huh? Thought I might run into you …”

It’s DLC. But where Frank was a loveable and incredulous idiot who got himself in way over his head and was then expected to take care of everything almost singlehandedly, Chuck’s situation in Case Zero is at least partly of his own device.

As Case Zero progresses, we are very slowly drip-fed reasons to care about Chuck’s plight, at least the parts he isn’t responsible for. I know a lot of people don’t care for the Dead Rising story, but one of my video game specialities is ludo-narratology (let’s pretend this is a term) and I think that a story should give you the impetus to keep going.

Killing zombies isn’t enough for me. There has to be a reason for killing them. What lofty goal am I achieving on the backs of the innocent undead?

Dead Rising had its overarching story of Santa Cabeza, government conspiracy and thinly veiled “insatiable consumerism is the true villain” moral, but it also backed that up with nestled stories in the form of the optional survivor rescues, each of which had its own backstory: from Leah, the woman who watched, paralysed, as the zombies ate her baby; to Cliff, the man so traumatised by events that he began to relive Vietnam; to Dave, attacked by a crazed supermarket manager; and the truly out-there raincoat cult that operated out of the cinema.

One of the biggest problems with the survivor system was always that the characters don’t exist in the mall until their story is cued. It’s not like, say Majora’s Mask, where everyone follows a schedule and can be found at x place at y time every day.

Case Zero works the same way: Darcie Blackrock doesn’t exist until 7pm, a mere two game hours before you have to get the hell out of Still Creek. The town is so small (only three separate loading areas) that it’s inconceivable that any of these characters are actually hiding somewhere that you can’t see. Sharon, in particular, should have been in the Quarantine Area from the very first rather than materializing in a tent when the time is right.

Still, while in a perfect world all survivors would exist somewhere, it is understandable that the format of the Dead Rising franchise renders this impossible. You can only ever walk in on a story at a set point in the narrative. You were somewhere else when the rest of it was playing out, that has to be it!

The little stories in Case Zero are good enough: greedy pawnbroker stuck atop a car, a “stagette” gone horribly awry, a couple of motorcyclists whose bikes have apparently been eaten, and venal newlyweds, but none of them are particularly hard hitting and they singularly lack in pathos.

The theory of in media res story exposure works well enough until the token psychopath shows up, because where the hell was he while you were running around his office? If I’m going to be using your place as my safe house for twelve hours, show your damn face or attack me from the go, man. I understand the need for Case Zero to have a climax, but there is nothing I like more than logical story developments. Narrative expectation should only be met when it’s well set up, and the presence of Jed is the weakest aspect of the otherwise strong-enough Case Zero.

What you’re playing Case Zero for, apart from a quick fix of zombie whacking, is to find out what Chuck Greene is all about. Case Zero hints at the bigger themes of the story and the nobler motivations of Chuck, but this is not the time for me to go into them.

Case Zero was fun enough to play, but it wasn’t until one of the last exchanges between Katey and Chuck that I was totally sold on the project. Chuck has something worth fighting for in Katey, even if she looks really weird. I’m going to be more than happy to pilot Chuck to victory in Dead Rising 2, just so long as he’s acting out of necessity and not suffering the consequences of being a moron.

Fingers crossed.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

Dead Rising is one of my favourite games ever. I spent the week before last playing it in preparation for Dead Rising 2. The more obvious way to prepare for the coming Game of the Year™ lies in playing Dead Rising 2: Case Zero.

This XBox 360 exclusive prologue is a two hour game that gives a taste of what’s to come, a sense of what has been lost and what has been gained in the transition from Willamette to Still Creek and on to Fortune City.

As a prologue, Case Zero is a mere sampling of what we’re to expect in the much bigger leagues of Dead Rising 2 proper. As a 360 exclusive, Capcom likely didn’t want to put anything too essential in to upset PS3 households too much. As such, Case Zero is a little shot in the arm to tide you over in the weeks it will take you until your console develops a full blown case of zombosis.

You don’t need Case Zero; in many ways it’s hamstrung by its format and there were scant few moments that made it feel truly worth my while – but those moments were there nonetheless and I definitely do not regret the purchase. If I am forced to subscribe to only one zombie franchise in an industry presently choked by the undead, Dead Rising is easily my drug of choice.

Chuck Greene stops in the town of Still Creek to get gas and administer his daughter’s anti-zombie meds. Being an idiot, Chuck gets his truck – and the meds – stolen. He has to keep his daughter safe, find her some more Zombrex and get the hell out of Still Creek without being eaten by zombies or having his daughter captured by the military.

The level cap in Case Zero is a mere level five, and the level-up bonuses are randomly allocated. There is little chance that you can build a lean Chuck Greene who can go to town on the zombies like a level 50 Frank West could in the original game. This is somewhat frustrating because part of the thrill of the original was learning new powers and becoming stronger and better to the point that difficult zombies and psychopaths became mere pebbles to be kicked aside. It was a game built entirely upon the player learning how to exploit it in the most entertaining ways; a game that demanded true mastery and, admittedly, a game that actively tried to make itself unnecessarily difficult for the player through poor design choices and AI programming.

It is understandable for Case Zero to have a level cap, because a particularly dedicated cadre could spend the month between releases grinding themselves to level fifty and instantly tear the game proper to shreds upon release, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun in Case Zero itself. Dead Rising is about the momentum of your character and his improvement.

When you reach the max level, you have nothing to work towards, and you’re butting against a wall. This doesn’t matter when your cap is fifty and you’re nigh unstoppable, but at level five Chuck is a weakling with the throwing power of an osteoporotic man and a zombie resistance only marginally higher than that of his hideous four year old daughter.

A level five Chuck in Case Zero has no hope of getting any better than his piteous state. It’s therefore hard to say if Case Zero, as it is, is any harder than the original Dead Rising, because Chuck doesn’t have the chance to improve. I’m hoping that those with Dead Rising 2 will be able to start Case Zero again, if they so choose, with a properly maxed out Chuck.

Due to the limitations of Chuck‘s character growth as it stands, I’m going to say that I’m comfortable not calling Case Zero a demo: a demo would make itself easier on the player and allow them to do more cool things – imposing a different set of time and scale limitations. Chuck is capable of a lot, but there is nothing he can do that is a real “showcase” for the deeper charms and delights of the Dead Rising franchise.

Much of what was good about Dead Rising is the same in Case Zero, and that is likely to frustrate some people: Chuck is subject to very strict time limits. Time limits don’t work in every game (see: Pikmin), but without a clock to race against there’s no sense of urgency to Chuck or Frank’s actions. Without the threat of failure, you can simply saunter through the game and do things in your own sweet time.

Maybe this would be a problem were it not for the Groundhog Day type save system that persists in Case Zero, albeit with minor tweaks. Many people hated Dead Rising’s save system and Capcom has responded by keeping it intact but trebling the number of saves you’re allowed to have. If you’ve sailed too close to the wind, not allowing Chuck enough time to succeed in his mission, you can revert to a previous save rather than starting from scratch with your experience gained. People can survive on one save or they can hedge their bets with a triple threat.

Everyone should be happy with that, but a lot of people buckle under time constraints. To them, I can offer no succor except to suggest that they take advantage of the restart system and try harder next time: that’s precisely what it’s there for.

The selection of weapons on display is fairly diverse considering the small scale of the operation and one of the draw cards of Dead Rising 2, custom weapons, is present in force. The taste for duct-tape fuelled mayhem is firmly implanted in the player’s mind, from the obvious (a bat with nails) to the sensical yet bizarre (a “boom stick” consisting of a pitchfork married to  a shotgun) to the unthinkably insane (an IED made out of a box of nails and a propane tank).

It’s just a pity – and I know I’m a broken record here – that Chuck is never really strong enough to make effective use of all of these cool weapons.

The survivor system is greatly improved from Dead Rising, with none of them seeming to actually be in danger from their own stupidity. Admittedly, only two hours of the game take place at night, when the zombies go red-eyed and turn into right bastards but, generally speaking, your charges are now more likely to follow instructions and will swap weapons with you rather than dropping them to the ground like uncoordinated idiots. You can also now perform a kicking attack when you’re carrying a survivor, so Chuck is actually somewhat useful (admittedly Frank was practically invincible when he was piggybacking someone to safety).

No survivors died on my watch, but the first time through I neglected to leave enough time to actually escape and then got eaten anyway, so back to the beginning it was with me. Despite the level cap, I still felt that I wasn’t wasting my time playing the whole thing over again – this time with more survivors! More custom weapons! More ridiculously inflated pawnshop goods! (Zombrex costs $25,000, but you can make that easily because Still Creek is filled with destructible slot machines – it’s on the outskirts of Las Vegas so, uh, gambling).

So Dead Rising 2: Case Zero isn’t an excellent game, or even a game at all, but rather a brief primer hinting at a deeper experience yet to come. You wouldn’t get Case Zero and expect it to meet your zombie craving – it’s the first hit, the dangerous entrée to a main course of mayhem, destruction, and the love of a father for his malformed daughter (and more on that later).

Sadly the 360 exclusivity of Case Zero and the just announced epilogue DLC means that Capcom doesn’t want you to buy Dead Rising 2 on your PS3. Not everyone can be like me and have the full smorgasbord of the console experience. So, sorry if you’ve only got a PS3 – but please, try to make the most of it. Dead Rising 2 is going to be good.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

More than a Pilgrim!

Remember how, a couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim as a comic but had some misgivings? In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright has taken all of the aspects that I had misgivings about and vomited them onto the screen as a candy-coated exercise in overstimulation.

Yes, meth amphetamine laced cinematic upchuck, liberally applied to a silver screen near you! I know that I’m going to get in trouble for this (realistically I’m not, because no one is going to care what I think), but I really did not enjoy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

There is too much … Everything. Except, naturally, where there’s not enough of anything. Imagine for a moment that you have to fight seven evil exes. Now imagine that you’re fighting them because you saw a girl with pink hair. That’s the only reason you’re fighting them. You don’t know anything about this girl besides her hair colour.

Thing is, you’re never going to know anything about this girl. It’s not in the script. It was never going to be in the script. What you want is break neck set pieces that get remarkably samey after a while.

Why should you give a good goddamn? It’s your beloved Michael Cera! He’s talking about video games and punching people! You know all about video games! You wish you could quell your simmering rage with the application of fists to flesh! That’s all you need in a film! You are, vicariously, Michael Cera! You’ve got to lose your virginity before graduation or the world will end!

The first, and most fundamental, problem with the movie is in the title: Wright and co writer Michael Bacall have taken the character of Scott Pilgrim and rewritten him into Michael Cera. Scott Pilgrim is supposed to be manic, enthusiastic and a little dumb: a fool who always lands on his feet, and a lovable one at that. That is to say, not Michael Cera.

I’ve always been more of a Michael Cera apologist than most, but this was the point that I realised that he must be stopped. Cera is not making an effort to refine his shtick; with each passing movie a wheel will fall off the Michael Cera wagon until eventually he loses control and is pitched off a cliff into oblivion.

Cera could stand to learn from co-star Jason Schwartzman, who has always been recognizably Schwartzman but with a career diverse enough and movies memorable enough for it not to matter. One goes to a movie because they enjoy Schwartzman’s work, but I can’t imagine anyone ever doing that for Cera’s sake; I’m convinced that a lot of people are seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in spite of, rather than because of, Cera’s involvement.

Normally if I love a movie I think, but never say out loud, “this is why I love movies.” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World actually embodies a lot of what I hate about movies. I love “movie movies”, but this is a “movie movie” that tries very hard to stamp its filmic nature all over you, while simultaneously trying to assert its video game and comic credentials. It succeeds at precisely none of these ventures.

My friend Raymond said that he enjoyed the film because it was “new and novel”, but that’s exactly the problem with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: it really isn’t anything that you haven’t seen done before and done better. Inserting on screen energy bars and pee meters does not make your movie a video game. Putting sound effects on screen and constantly splitting the screen into “panels” does not make a movie a comic book. It didn’t work for Ang Lee in Hulk and it doesn’t work for Wright here.

A big deal is made of the fact that this movie is the ultimate video game experience. After Elton offered the headline “as Interesting as Watching Someone Else Play a Video Game”, which is blatantly untrue: given the right game and the right player, watching someone else play a video game is akin to an artform. Observe me playing Dead Rising or Uncharted and tell me you’re not having a good time and I’ll call you a goddamn liar.

To say that a film is like a video game is normally reserved as “the ultimate insult”, which doesn’t make much sense because video games are good and have their own place in society. Some complain that video games are becoming too cinematic, to which I say “pshaw”.

There is nothing saying there cannot be a perfect fusion of both film and game, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is most assuredly not it. There is only one video game conceit that works properly here, and that is the 1-Up. Even that was used better, and more deftly, in the comic. I will also make a concession for the coin outlines in the Chaos Theatre, because they were kind of cool, but by that point in proceedings they were way past second hand.

We have bred a culture that shuns the original and gleefully embraces the derivative and referential: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the embodiment of this sort of laziness. It gets off to a promising start with its application of music from A Link to the Past, but then it overeggs the pudding: potent elements are applied too liberally, and they eventually become bland, intrusive and even tiresome.

You have a Zelda reference. It sends chills down your spine because it appropriates something that you know and love into an exciting new context. It is good. Thing is, a few minutes later, there’s another Zelda reference. And another. You’re used to seeing Zelda applied to Scott Pilgrim at this stage, and consequently the reference has been rendered meaningless. Zelda has not been normalized; rather, you’ve been desensitized to Zelda. This is a tragedy in anyone’s books.

You have an underworked reference to Double Dragon, you have a pretend video game (“Ninja Ninja Revolution”) that implies that Edgar Wright somehow doesn’t know how a video game works (when you win, an arcade game should not ask you for more money if you want to continue – the whole point is that you’ve defeated the game and you only spent 25 cents in the pursuit of that victory), which I am sure is the opposite of his intent. Video games get misrepresented in movies often enough that one would think someone who actually plays them would be adamant about getting them right.

A key element of pop culture nihilism is that the audience “gets” the material and knows that the authors are throwing them a knowing wink. It’s the mutually assured destruction of original thought. That Wright would so clumsily grapple with a basic conceit of the video game form lends yet another layer of disingenuousness to an already deeply dishonest film.

In this sort of work, little things are just as likely to annoy as much as the big things. Why, for instance, do Crash and the Boys get killed off in a throwaway gag when it would be easier to leave them alive simply because it wouldn’t upset anyone (i.e. me)? It’s because Wright has tried to give the story a cleaner through line: he wants Sex Bob-omb to have a goal, to win a battle of the bands and to get a recording contract.

As a result, most of the variety of the comic is lost. Three of the seven battles involve Scott playing music and then punching people, or the other way around.  Sex Bob-omb’s music is supposedly provided by Beck but Beck has done a great job of making his music sound like so much noise. You get to enjoy it for the bass battle! And the twins battle! While you’re witnessing them, you notice that the sounds are totally indistinct. The obnoxiousness is nowhere near the level of Michael Bay, and it’s always easy to see what’s happening, but it’s damn near impossible to care about any of it.

The majority of the fights are massively predictable. Of course you know that Scott is going to win them, but not every battle should run “looks like Scott’s winning! Oh wait, now the evil ex has got him! How will Scott survive?! REVERSAL KO!”

When they’re not predictable, they are stupid. “Demon Hipster Chicks” are as discordant here as they were in the first instance, but their tomfoolery is compounded by Matthew Patel launching into an “Indian dance” for easy laughs based on cultural stereotypes (the best kind of laughs!). Lucas Lee, at least, isn’t too poorly handled except he’s dispatched too quickly. The worst offender is Roxy, who has been so violently mistreated by the film that Mae Whitman should probably have complained. That is not how you defeat a half-ninja, Edgar Wright, and you damn well know it.

Wright has colossally mismanaged the passage of time in the film, with almost no down time between most scenes. When Scott isn’t lamely wooing Ramona, he’s lurching from one evil ex to the next. It really doesn’t feel like Scott has any life outside of the fight, to the point that the only reason he’s shown walking anywhere is so a half-ninja can attack him. It feels like he’s only placed in scenes to trigger plot advancement, which seems considerably less than natural. A movie should never feel like it’s on rails; it should feel like the rest of the world is outside the confines of the narrative, and we simply don’t see it. Scott Pilgrim exists in a bubble. Every character exists solely for his convenience, to boost him. None of them have their own lives outside of Scott’s Precious Little Life. I understand that this is a movie, and it doesn’t have room for everything, but look at it like this: all of these characters are Michael Cera enablers. No one should enable Michael Cera. He is a monster.

Ramona Flowers was never much of a character to begin with. She was always an object for Scott to doggedly pursue. Mary Elizabeth Winstead somehow brings less to the character than the little that was there in the first place (I checked a few panels and saw that in the comic, at least, she had facial expressions and the good grace to be embarrassed by her past). I hate the gimmick of instant love. Scott has no reason to have any interest in Ramona and even less to fight her League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends.

The already poorly explained sway Gideon has over Ramona in the comics is even more lazily treated in the film. A stupid prop is all she gets by way of justification for her actions and somehow everything is forgiven. Jason Schwartzman is a good Gideon and the best parts of the finale are those taken directly from the final volume (which was incomplete at the time of filming), but the whole thing is clumsily handled. The whole film is clumsily handled, so slickly that it’s amazing none of the actors slipped over and face planted in production.

Believe me, every actor except for Cera tries (and Winstead just isn’t given enough to work with to bother trying to make a go of it), and they are mostly successful. Brandon Routh as Todd Ingram has the most thankless task of all with deliberately painfully clumsy dialogue, which is less “funny” than it is “painfully clumsy”. If you’re laughing it’s because you just want the scene to be over; for some reason, this particular spot of dialogue was deemed fit to make it into the trailers.

Similarly, Chris Evans is given such direction that suggests he’s playing less of a person than he is a syncopation machine, but that’s not his fault. He does what he can with his singularly lacking material, and the worst of it is that he isn’t even the most shortchanged character. Of the exes, that’s a tie between Roxy and the Katayanagi Twins.

Why the Katayanagi Twins have their robots replaced with keyboards is entirely beyond me, because people like me (i.e. nerds, your key demo!) are supposed to love robots. O’Malley knew how to escalate drama and stakes, and volume five was the most dramatic volume of Scott Pilgrim at the time of its publication. The Katayanagi Twins are little more than an afterthought, resentfully jammed in by Wright for appearance’s sake, when in reality they should have brought gravity to proceedings. Instead, Cera’s Pilgrim is allowed to float away on a cloud of his own smugness – not a character, but just a jealous Cera like so many other teen protagonists before him (and yes, I know he’s supposed to be 22).

Kieran Culkin brings a tiny ray of sunshine to proceedings with his portrayal of the super gay Wallace Wells, but he brings a different brand of gay to proceedings than his inky counterpart. Wallace manages to provide most of the films more legitimate laughs and it’s good to see that a movie made to appeal to video game nerds featuring men making out without saying “ewww” about it. That’s the best that can be said, because Culkin is also given unfortunate “reaction” shots, which means for parts of the movie he is relegated to the role of the “gag animal in a J-Lo movie”, the most shameful role that any actor can ever be asked to perform.

Anna Kendrick does well in the seemingly expanded role of Stacey Pilgrim, the normally funny Aubrey Plaza is painful in the role of Julie Powers (ahahaha, we’ve CENSORED HER SWEARING AND THE DIALOGUE DRAWS ATTENTION TO THE FACT), and Alison Pill is really rendered fourth tier as Kim Pine.

Ellen Wong probably comes off best as Knives Chau, although some of her material is simply embarrassing (the wafting “love” is not the least of it), and they’ve done strange things to make her augment the existence of Johnny Simmons’ Young Neil (who in some ways is a different character thanks to the changes in plot structure).

Similarly, Brie Larson is perfect as Envy Adams but unfortunately the character itself has been assassinated. You know how at the end of everything characters are supposed to learn vital lessons from those around them? Envy isn’t given a chance. She’s just left hanging, and consequently Scott has even less of a character than he had a right to have – and that’s one thing that’s entirely not Cera’s fault.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is less than a bubblegum film: it loses its flavour shortly after the opening credits sequence, when you realise it’s not going to get any better. There’s just going to be more Zelda music, two separate but identical Cera-excruciating “Scott explains the origins of Pac-Man”, more faux-DDR jokes, and the pounding of lesbians into the ground.

It’s the sort of movie that ambushes you later: you’re sitting around minding your own business and then you’re reminded of, say, the Seinfeld sequence (there’s seriously a Seinfeld sequence) and you cringe. You’re supposed to remember an isolated part of a movie (example: Wright’s own Hot Fuzz – “I don’t wanna be Judge Judy and executor!”) and smile or laugh at the thought of it. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a head-shaking movie characterized by regret at what never should have been.

I suspect that my stance on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is going to be unpopular. I don’t care about the whole hipster thing: everyone hates hipsters so much that I’m not convinced that they actually exist. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World does not embrace hipsters, but rather a demographic. This movie embodies modern popular culture, which is to say that it is a mirror facing another mirror; it is an endless corridor devoid of meaning.

At one point I considered saying that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is basically a cinematic version of Family Guy, but I realised that is something I would never be able to take back. I genuinely respect Edgar Wright and loved his last two films. I want Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to do well not because I liked it – and I think you can tell that I assuredly did not – but because I would like to see more films from him. Shaun of the Dead had a legitimate heart – the shot that Shaun had to take inside the Winchester horrified and saddened me even as it made others laugh awkwardly – and Hot Fuzz was the second best mainstream homosexual romance comedy of the 2000s, after Superbad.

More films are going to be made like this, and worse. If zeitgeisty films like Zombieland can sidestep annoyance (let’s not talk about the Eisenberg Principle), there’s no reason that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could not have done the same.

In Shaun of the Dead, Wright undeniably helped to pave the way for the zombie and vampire mania of the modern age, but here has bitten off far more than he can chew. Cramming six books into 113 minutes, the first thirty of which are approximately 75% of the first volume, he has left the film with the sound and myself with the fury.

This isn’t simply a case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World being a bad adaptation of the comic – and it is undeniably that – it’s about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World being a plainly bad movie. Noisy, heartless and empty, it is the perfect symbol of the worst excesses of modern pop culture. If this is what my generation is supposed to worship, I’m going to excuse myself – and I’m not going to go quietly.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

It’s time that someone accepted it, but no one will: a video game movie doesn’t have to be bad. A video game movie doesn’t have to be like a video game. A video game movie can be lighthearted fun. A video game movie can really just be a “movie”, without the need to append “video game”.

One does not watch No Country For Old Men and call it a “book movie”.

Prince of Persia is a movie. It is not game-like in its presentation. It’s not entirely clear why it needed to be made but, unlike quite a few of the action adventure films I’ve seen in recent months, I do not regret its production. In fact, seeing it brightened my day a little.

The best way to put it is this: Prince of Persia is what Clash of the Titans might have been had Clash of the Titans been a competently made movie.

Mass Effect: The Road to Shepardition

Warning: Contains minor Mass Effect spoilers, no Mass Effect 2 spoilers.

You may have read that the Mass Effect movie has been reoptioned. This apparently is news, because I thought that around the time Mass Effect 2 came out there was talk of the movie. No matter.

Thing is, look at the Mass Effect boxes. Look at the guy with the shaved head, the guy with the gun, the guy who doesn’t care what you think of him. Who is that guy?

Some might argue that he is John Shepard. There is no John Shepard. Mass Effect is an infinite series of parallel Shepards, from LL Shepard, the genocide preventing beacon of light, to the bloodthirsty Sarah “Going Rogue” Shepard, hell bent on homicide and pitifully thin profit margins. There are gradations of Shepard, and each is particular to the player. Sarah Shepard may be physically identical to LL Shepard, but she has black lips to match her black heart.

One gets so attached to one’s first Shepard that any other Shepard seems somewhat wrong by comparison. When Sarah Shepard embarked upon her maiden voyage, I reflected upon the fact that LL would never be so pointlessly antagonistic to the entire galaxy. It jarred.

Then, as I got under Sarah’s skin, I realised that she was indeed her own person, and not simply LL with some dark make up on and a smart mouth: she was a genuinely anarchic space bitch and she didn’t care who knew it.

I don’t have stats on this but it seems that quite a lot of people play Shepard as a woman. The default Shepard – shaved marine John Shepard – seems too boring to even fathom. One of your options in these games is to play as a variant of a space wizard. You can also be a space hacker, a psychic computer genius super bug-empath, or quite a few combinations of all of the above … yet so many players choose to run through the universe as a dude with a gun.

I don’t have anything against “dudes with guns”, but it is hard to deny that in the current field they are a little overrepresented. If I want to play as a woman who can suck you into a vortex of pain with a gesture of her hand, then I will.

So what will we end up with in a projected movie of Mass Effect? We will end up with someone else’s Shepard: a Shepard set in stone, a Shepard that we, the audience, have no say in. To canonize Mass Effect is to weaken its brand.

Remember the uproar that went up when it was discovered that a Shepard created from scratch in Mass Effect 2 had wantonly murdered Wrex and doomed the Council to extinction? That Shepard was a jerk by default. That’s not anybody’s Shepard. That is Bioware’s idea of what a lot of peoples’ Shepards might have been.

It is because of this that the PC crowd had the huge Shepard Supermarket, wherein players could download the Shepard that most closely conformed to their ideal Shepard. Fortunately, Mass Effect 2’s story allowed for extensive plastic surgery at the beginning of the game to reshape a Shepard into the Shepard of one’s own dreams. It’s a degree of decadence just short of Tyrell Corporation, but it restores not just peace of mind to the player but to the universe they have been charged with the protection of.

What makes Shepard so great is that she is a legitimate character rather than the blank slate everyman that so many modern video games offer. The player is given a pre-formed character with whom they quickly familiarize themselves, and based on what they know about her they decide what action she is most likely to take.

Would Sarah Shepard show mercy and allow the Rachni to survive? No, she would give their queen an acid bath and laugh at the unheard screams of millions of children never to be born.

Would LL Shepard slaughter the citizens of Feros simply because it’s easier than trying to deprogram them? No, she would ensure that no one died on her watch – and she would do it efficiently and without complaint. That’s just the kind of Shepard LL is.

That every Shepard belongs to the player means that there is no single Mass Effect canon. Different Shepards created different universes, and to watch a movie that asserts that something you know in your heart is blatantly wrong is to bring pain upon oneself.  The movie removes power and agency from the hands of those most dedicated to the subject matter: the players.

Commander Shepard belongs to everybody. There is no single Commander Shepard. For some charlatan to foist the Commander Shepard of their own creation upon the world, and to claim him (and it will be him) as the Commander Shepard, to expect us to adopt him as our unquestioned messiah, is an act of intense hubris, and one that we must not stand for.

Whatever the Mass Effect movie turns out to be – and we don’t strictly need it, because the games are already there to be played, enjoyed and consumed in an almost cinematic fashion – it won’t be Mass Effect. It might have some cool ideas, it might have some cool characters, action, worlds and an epic story befitting the grandest of space operas, but it will ultimately be someone else’s vision.

Mass Effect is at its heart an expression of democracy: the player’s destination is universal, but their choices along the way act to create an individual Shepard – a Shepard they can call their own.

Credit is due to Bioware forums user OraVelnoria87 for their “FemShep” montage.

Pokémon Black and White: The Starters

All my life, I’ve dreamed only of one thing: owning a fire breathing pig.

Now, 24 years after the birth of my wish and 14 years after the inception of the Pokémon franchise, my dream has come true. Ladies and gentlemen, Nintendo proudly presents Pokabu:

The fieriest pig in town!

Don’t you just want to throw him into hot water and turn him into Ryoga?

He hates pigs, but he is one.

Yes, yes you do.

Pokabu is joined by a grass snake Pokémon, Tsutarja:

Snappy dresser.

Look at this smug guy! He thinks he’s got it all sewn up! What kinda snake has hands and feet? I could imagine him being played by Noel Fielding.

Except green and yellow, obviously.

Of course, the road to starter Pokémon has not always been smooth. The holy trinity of Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle has not quite been matched. Totodile, Chikorita and Cyndaquil didn’t have the same charm or flair. People have an obscene obsession with Mudkip, but of the third generation only Torchic has any real traction. The best and most iconic set of starters since the first generation were the chimp, penguin and bonsai turtle team of Chimchar, Piplup and Turtwig – and even then Piplup grew up to be the Penguin of the Opera.

So it is with some hesitation that I show you the weakest link in generation five’s starter chain, Mijumaru:

Yeah, I don't know what this is

Yeah, I don’t know what that is. Bulbapedia refers to it as a “Sea Otter” Pokémon. It looks like a depressive snowman desperately trying to escape a children’s beauty pageant.

New!

That said, I could also see him played by Noel Fielding:

Digital castaway!

It’s a new core Pokémon game. By law, I am required to be excited by it. But yeah, it is pretty exciting. Animated battles, cool looking new trainers, an urban landscape to run in. I have a lot of misgivings about modern Nintendo, but the core Pokémon franchise is one thing that is still being done right, with no real qualms whatsoever. While Mijumaru is some kind of freak occurrence who could potentially look better in motion and in other art, I have high hopes for this game.

So here we go: day one purchase! New adventures to embark upon! New friendships to be forged! New world creating god Pokémon to capture! People who aren’t into these things don’t realise how much of a cultural cachet Pokémon still has in the video gaming world. 14 years and still going strong.

We are a family, like a giant tree

Main starter images sourced from Bulbapedia. Fan art provided by pocket lint, whatever his sources are.

Fallout 3: Ten Hours is a Long Time

It looks, my friends, like I have exhausted Fallout 3‘s usefulness. I was enjoying the character interactions – and you’ll get at least one more case study out of me in the form of Tenpenny Tower, which fairly well disembowelled me on Monday – but it seems like all of the missions I now have are in the form of “go to a ruin, fight super mutants, obtain a valuable item”. The exploration aspect of the game was initially charming, but it’s starting to drag.

This is, of course, entirely my fault. I should have paid more and proper attention to the story, rather than wondering why a tiny place like Andale has more interesting characters and stories to tell than the safest place in the world, Rivet City. An open ended game has many devious tools to distract me (and that was ironically my problem with GTA IV: it completely lacked proper or worthy distractions), and distracted I have been.

Basically, what I’m saying is after 35 hours I’m tiring of the experience. It’s all just become so much treasure hunting and I’m going to have to find Liam Neeson and save society so I can go back to watching anime, or playing … Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. That’s right, baby! Set expectation levels to “you’d better not disappoint me, Rare, or else“!

Funny thing is, I was really keen on Oblivion at first, too, and my enthusiasm severely waned when variety gave way to monotonous trips to Hell. At least the people in Fallout 3 don’t have four different voices each. At least I’m not as invested in the whole thing as Shamus. Maybe I really am just terrible at enjoying video games now?

Fallout 3 Case Study I: Andale

Having suffered a literal crash course in the mythology of Fallout, my play through of the third series is more informed by its spiritual predecessor, Oblivion, than by its more obvious antecedents. Where Oblivion’s environs were samey and boring, with needlessly twisting dungeons and insurmountably steep terrain, Fallout 3 benefits from flat, desolate lands, dotted with interesting locales. What’s more, the whole experiment has character about it, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Today we’ll study the case of the tiny town of Andale, proud recipient of the “Best Town” award every year … forever.

Contains spoilers for Andale, a tiny part of the game you’re not likely to see unless you look really hard!

A Vague Treatise on FPS Points of Difference


This image of Rapture is not going to be sourced, for the protection of my mental health.

As I wandered the aisles of a game store yesterday, looking as always for rare or obscure games (to be played, of course, only when any relevance they once held has eroded into the mists of time), I was thinking, as you do, about the nature of the FPS and story driven gameplay. A lot of the games nowadays are FPS, and I was thinking that it must be hard to mess one up, at least on a very basic level: while level design, enemy design and AI, weapon balance are, of course, vital, we can accept that FPS are all basically the same – point and shoot games of varying elaborateness.

The thing is that all of those things that I listed above are what separates each FPS from the others: levels, enemies and weapons are all dependent on theme. If you don’t give an eff about the place that you’re running and gunning through, then why are you going to run and gun? Would Portal have become the hit it was, and apparently the only thing in the universe that channers don’t hate (excepting Ron Paul and green Guy Fawkes masks), were it not for GlaDOS? I posit that it would not. It’s a short game, with a story that is told in a relatively subtle way, with its very sterility a key to its seedy underbelly. Portal is not a great example because it has fundamentally different game play, because it’s more of a First Person Puzzler than it is a First Person Shooter.