Apart From the Crowd

Every year we slink into this dim reach of days after the glitz and glamors of the holidays have passed and there is little left to do but catalog a reckoning of the year. Particularly for those of us who have crossed a chronological and mental terminator beyond which New Year’s Eve holds little meaning, the howling freeze of late December is less a call to celebration as it is just a damn cold wind.

At times like this what is there to be done besides tally up the days that have come and rank them for posterity? What was the biggest news story of the year? The best film, crappy pop-music album, incoherent sports-star tweet or character death on a episodic prime-time show? And, of course, what was the best/worst game of the year?

I don’t mean to imply that I’m somehow above it all. If there is any hypocrisy to which I’ve not become comfortably accustomed, then assume that I just haven’t thought of it yet. I have no qualms with being at one turn critical of a thing, and then in the same sentence an active participant. But, what strikes me as we circle back ‘round to the Best Game of 20XX discussion is how far away I am from the norm on two key games.

Civilization V and Heavy Rain.

Judging by some of the criticism circling the web as regards the storied Civ franchise, the classic Star Trek law that every odd-numbered iteration is infused with concentrated, perhaps lethal doses of disappointment may be manifesting itself in the House of Firaxis. Anyone who has sat through The Search for Spock and The Final Frontier will know the pain that some Civ players seem to be enduring in the semi-reboot that is Civilization V.

I just seem to be that odd bird in the crowd, wearing my Vulcan ears and Federation Insignia who thinks that a character like Sybok is just the sort of thing the franchise needs to get moving in the right direction.

Hexagonal board, non-stacking armies, sea transport for ground units, culture tech trees, elimination of spies and religion -- these are all a big check mark in my big-book-of-good-ideas. And, I admit that the launch AI was patently non-spectacular, but maybe I’m just playing Civ for the wrong reasons, because I found my classic one-more-turn zen as quickly and easily as I ever did with Beyond the Sword.

I realize the disenfranchised will argue that I am underplaying the woeful AI, and that may be true. The issue at hand probably dissolves down to the shameful secret that I view Civilization more as a pseudo-sim than I do a competitive game. I am content to see my kind flourish across a grand landscape, and more often than not I’m more put-out than engaged by an invading civ. Examined through that distorted lens, it’s hard for me to find complaint against Civilization V.

Which, happily, leaves me extra scorn to heap upon Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain, to me, feels like a movie that you leave feeling as though you should have enjoyed it, but the longer you ruminate on the experience the more you discover you hated the whole damn thing -- a movie like Pitch Black. (Pitchforks and fiery torches will be distributed in an orderly fashion.)

I choose Pitch Black, because like Heavy Rain it is a perplexingly beloved piece of poorly acted narrative with plot glory holes of obscene dimensions that seems to get a pass for style and a vague sense of uniqueness.

I understand the whole diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks concept, and that’s the whole point here. I’m clearly the outlier, the raving lunatic, but I look at Heavy Rain and where others see an exercise in innovation, I see an overindulgent exercise in tedious gameplay, counter-pointed by a non-sensical and questionably written plot. Yes, it had some very affecting moments, but I’m pretty sure cutting off my actual finger would be affecting as well, and I suspect that I wouldn’t like that much either.

Thing about Heavy Rain is that I think I actually liked it more in the moment of having immediately finished it than I did at any moment after. It is a game that does not sit well in my memory and that is openly grotesque when viewed from afar. While so many others seem to have locked the strongest vignettes into their mind, it’s the tedious busy work, awkward conversations and ridiculous conceits that stick out in my mind.

I don’t expect much agreement at the end of all this. This probably isn’t a popular opinion, which is part of why I bring it up. Not to be contrary, but I always find it interesting when my perception of a game, which is so traditionally in lockstep with a certain kind of model, strikes off stubbornly on its own, because here’s the thing -- I should love Heavy Rain and I should be disappointed in Civilization V. I totally get why people have the opinions they do on these games, and I don’t quite get why I don’t share those opinions.

I'm not standing around saying here's how I feel about these two games and you should feel the same way too. I'm saying that I'm just as surprised as you that I feel these ways about these games. And, it's kind of nice to be surprised that way every now and again.

Comments

I stopped paying much attention to the Paragon / Renegade "points" system after a while, honestly. For the first few hours of the first ME, I tried to play a pretty straight Renegade Shepard, but a lot of the Renegade choices (especially those directed to your crew) were just kind of dickish for no reason, which didn't really fit the "do what it takes to get the job done" sort of character I wanted to play. I settled on an in-between style in which she's sort of a mother bear: her crew is her family and she's sweet as pie to them, but if anyone outside the crew threatens her cubs or her mission, she will END them without hesitation. I wound up with almost an even split between Paragon and Renegade points, which did lock me out from a bunch of dialogue options, but it was worth it to play the character the way I wanted. It also made Shepard into a more dynamic character, one who's made mistakes and learned from them.

I think it's that, not the occasional jarring shifts in tone in the conversations, that's the series' greatest weakness from a storytelling perspective: the optimal way to play from a gameplay perspective is opposed to the most satisfying storytelling experience. If I had played the game from a min-maxing "gamer" perspective, my Shepard would be a lot more one-dimensional and a lot less interesting.

Jarring shifts nothing. Downright insane is more like it - and the whole frickin crew is insane for putting up with it like it was nothing.

It does not make sense to me, hbi2k to criticize ME2's storytelling from an optimized gameplay standpoint. Besides which, I do not believe you really know the optimal way to play the game.

I've played the game many, many times. This includes wooing multiple persons (I think I got them all), playing purely Paragon, purely Renegade, and several mixes in between. All the story paths are satisfying in their own way, though the Renegade Shepard responses, I think, are some of the worst awfully written pieces of crap in the game. The character just becomes either unsympathetic or illogical - both to me.

Choosing Paragon only locks you out of Renegade choices and choosing Renegade locks you out of Paragon choices. Some choices require more Paragon points, and some more Renegade points. The effect this has on the gameplay hinges on two points: Morinth and enemy characters.

You can only get Morinth if you have enough either Renegade or Paragon points. Likewise, you can only settle disputes peaceably if you have enough of either Renegade or Paragon points. In terms of gameplay impact, the effect is minimal. Reave remains unlocked as long as you've acquired Morinth at some point in the game, so you can play to that point, and reload and do whatever you want - or play again in some mode you prefer, or just ignore Morinth altogether - Reave isn't that powerful, and Samara is at least equal to Morinth.

Not having enough Renegade or Paragon points can cost you members down the line, but since you only need two at a time, the impact is likewise not particularly great.

What I'm getting at here is that the use of "min-maxing" in this case is mainly in the distribution of rank points in Shepard's power grid, with the conversations having minimal impact, and that playing Paragon or Renegade enough to get all the choices doesn't result in a monodimensional character.

Larry, I imagine you watching a live Shakespeare play. "What is this crap? Are these people insane? It's like they have no internal monologue: the second they're alone they start yakking at the ceiling about whatever's on their mind. Who does that? And what's the deal with that thing where they do this ridiculously loud fake whisper, and everyone else in the room pretends like they can't even hear it at all? Totally breaks my immersion."

As for the whole gameplay vs. story thing, I think you know very well what I'm talking about. Whether it actually makes a giant gameplay difference or not, the first instinct of the average gamer on learning that there are two opposing paths their Shepard can take is going to be to max out one path, then max out the other on a subsequent playthrough (assuming they like the game enough for two playthroughs). They aren't going to know that the gameplay difference is minimal, because most people aren't going to play through twenty times to figure out exactly what the difference is between each and every possible permutation.

The end result is that, because of the way the presentation of the game's karma system interacts with the audience's expectations, I'm afraid that a lot of people who play the games are going to find themselves funneled into one of two story experiences and miss out on the way the game is capable of turning into a very specific and personal experience unique to the person playing it.

Besides which, I do not believe you really know the optimal way to play the game.

I've played the game many, many times. (etc.)

Do you realize how words like this sound when other people read them? They make me not want to have this conversation with you any longer. If the only people qualified to think and have conversations about a game are the people who've beaten the game twenty times and experienced literally every possible mathematical permutation of story outcomes, well, you're going to find yourself with a real paucity of people to converse with.

hbi2k wrote:

Do you realize how words like this sound when other people read them? They make me not want to have this conversation with you any longer. If the only people qualified to think and have conversations about a game are the people who've beaten the game twenty times and experienced literally every possible mathematical permutation of story outcomes, well, you're going to find yourself with a real paucity of people to converse with.

First off, my apologies. That said, you did mention something about playing the game optimally, and your having said that, I felt obliged to say that playing the game optimally does not necessarily require playing either extreme Renegade or extreme Paragon, which you mistaken assumed. How else could I have worded this point without exposing your mistake?

hbi2k wrote:

Larry, I imagine you watching a live Shakespeare play. "What is this crap? Are these people insane? It's like they have no internal monologue: the second they're alone they start yakking at the ceiling about whatever's on their mind. Who does that? And what's the deal with that thing where they do this ridiculously loud fake whisper, and everyone else in the room pretends like they can't even hear it at all? Totally breaks my immersion."

Those are false analogies. The things you point out are devices which are necessary to the exposition of certain story points in a play format. It is not central to video game format to have bad dialogue.

In fact, ME2 itself shows this. Some parts of ME2's scripting do not fall prey to the "insane Shepard" syndrome. Too, Paragon and Renegade points already lock out certain conversation paths. I don't understand how it's anathema to video game storytelling to use the exact same device for the sake of narrative consistency.

hbi2k wrote:

As for the whole gameplay vs. story thing, I think you know very well what I'm talking about. Whether it actually makes a giant gameplay difference or not, the first instinct of the average gamer on learning that there are two opposing paths their Shepard can take is going to be to max out one path, then max out the other on a subsequent playthrough (assuming they like the game enough for two playthroughs). They aren't going to know that the gameplay difference is minimal, because most people aren't going to play through twenty times to figure out exactly what the difference is between each and every possible permutation.

The end result is that, because of the way the presentation of the game's karma system interacts with the audience's expectations, I'm afraid that a lot of people who play the games are going to find themselves funneled into one of two story experiences and miss out on the way the game is capable of turning into a very specific and personal experience unique to the person playing it.

With all due respect, hbi2k, I think you're exaggerating how personal of an experience you can get out of ME2. There aren't that many choices to make; at least one of the millions who have played the game would have had a similar experience to your own, particularly for those of us who have played through most of the permutations.

Too, I don't particularly view an extreme playthrough as being less of a game or a story. Having NOT played through an extreme Paragon nor Renegade game, how can you presume to know how the story unfolds in those instances?

Indeed, I'm failing to see the overall thrust of your argument here. What exactly is it are you trying to say?

My own point is clear: the dialogue in ME2 is bad because some very specific portions of the game (which I have outlined) can result in a very jarring experience, because the content of the script isn't as competently written as it should have been. Your rebuttal on this point is that this is inherent to the format, which is untrue (and which I have countered with ME2 itself). Your second rebuttal I do not understand.

LarryC wrote:

First off, my apologies. That said, you did mention something about playing the game optimally, and your having said that, I felt obliged to say that playing the game optimally does not necessarily require playing either extreme Renegade or extreme Paragon, which you mistaken assumed. How else could I have worded this point without exposing your mistake?

I hate this phrase, but I'm going to use it anyway: it's not what you said, it's how you said it. You came across-- I'm going to assume without intending to-- as though you were attempting to claim that your atypical amount of play time gave you some sort of extra authority to comment on the game. Instead of saying (paraphrased), "It sounds like you don't know what you're talking about," you might have said something like, "Well, based on my own experience with the game I don't agree that this is the case," or something along those lines.

In any case, I apologize if I overreacted.

Those are false analogies. The things you point out are devices which are necessary to the exposition of certain story points in a play format. It is not central to video game format to have bad dialogue.

This, I think, is where the fundamental disconnect is. You accept unrealistic, jarring devices like the monologue and the stage whisper without question because they are part of the medium of theater. What I am saying is that in a game with as much dialogue and as much player agency affecting the order and presentation of that dialogue as Mass Effect, there are GOING to be discrepancies between the delivery of one line and the one after it. It might happen more, it might happen less, but it WILL happen to some extent. Expecting the dev team to account for EVERY possible conversational permutation such that NO such discrepancy is EVER possible is simply unrealistic.

Not only is it INEVITABLE, it's actually DESIRABLE. I LIKE the fact that my Shepard can begin a conversation with one disposition and end it with another. I like the fact that once I have Shepard enter a conversation intending to convince another character that they were wrong to do a thing, I can find myself (and by extension, Shepard) swayed by that character's arguments, and roleplay the fact that Shepard, not the other character, has had her position swayed. It deepens my roleplaying experience and makes Shepard a more multidimensional and interesting character. This would not be possible if I were not able to start with a Renegade option and, at some point, pull an about-face and pursue a Paragon option instead.

Just as viewing Shakespeare relies on willing suspension of disbelief to explain away the fact that one character might not hear another character's clearly audible stage whisper, it requires a similar suspension to explain away the fact that Shepard might say, "You should never have done X, you monster!" one line and, "I guess doing X wasn't so bad after all" the next. The PRESENTATION, the specific inflections or wording of Line A and Line B, might be jarring. The STORY, the idea that Shepard might have changed her mind mid-conversation, is not. Suspension of disbelief is what reconciles the presentation (which is pre-recorded and the only thing I affect is the order in which it is presented) with the story that the developer and I have created together.

With all due respect, hbi2k, I think you're exaggerating how personal of an experience you can get out of ME2. There aren't that many choices to make; at least one of the millions who have played the game would have had a similar experience to your own, particularly for those of us who have played through most of the permutations.

When I speak of how personal the experience is, I'm not talking about the specific set of variables that make up that particular playthrough: Character X lived, Character Y died, A Planet was destroyed, B Planet was saved. That's a bunch of numbers in a save file to be imported in the next game. It's not a STORY.

What interests me is the WHY, the roleplaying decisions the player makes that explain WHY Shepard would make this decision or that decision. Three different players might make identical decisions for entirely different reasons. I decide that Shepard will go tear-assing off to save her kidnapped crew instead of getting in some extra prep time and damn the consequences because she's lost too many good friends over the course of two games to let these go without a fight. Another player decides that Shepard would do it because she's afraid that if one of her crew cracked under interrogation it might jeopardize the mission. And a third player does it because they're doing a pure Paragon playthrough and think they might get Paragon points for it. Three identical gameplay decisions, three different stories.

But the thing is, that third player really isn't making a roleplaying choice at all: they're just doing what gamers do and min-maxing for the sake of min-maxing. And if (for the sake of argument) 80% of players always pick the Renegade or Paragon option just for the sake of picking it, then I'd argue that they're not roleplaying at all. They're not making the decisions THEY want to make, or the decisions that they think their version of Shepard would make. They're making the decision that they think Bioware WANTS them to make, which sort of defeats the purpose of giving them a decision at all.

hbi2k wrote:

In any case, I apologize if I overreacted.

Not at all. I totally agree that it was the manner of saying that could have been at fault. I've been trying to improve, but it's an uphill climb. Apparently, I'm naturally supercilious in manner, or so some of my closer friends tell me.

"Well, based on my own experience with the game I don't agree that this is the case," seems to be a good way to phrase it. My thanks for the suggestion.

hbi2k wrote:

This, I think, is where the fundamental disconnect is. You accept unrealistic, jarring devices like the monologue and the stage whisper without question because they are part of the medium of theater. What I am saying is that in a game with as much dialogue and as much player agency affecting the order and presentation of that dialogue as Mass Effect, there are GOING to be discrepancies between the delivery of one line and the one after it. It might happen more, it might happen less, but it WILL happen to some extent. Expecting the dev team to account for EVERY possible conversational permutation such that NO such discrepancy is EVER possible is simply unrealistic.

Not only is it INEVITABLE, it's actually DESIRABLE. I LIKE the fact that my Shepard can begin a conversation with one disposition and end it with another. I like the fact that once I have Shepard enter a conversation intending to convince another character that they were wrong to do a thing, I can find myself (and by extension, Shepard) swayed by that character's arguments, and roleplay the fact that Shepard, not the other character, has had her position swayed. It deepens my roleplaying experience and makes Shepard a more multidimensional and interesting character. This would not be possible if I were not able to start with a Renegade option and, at some point, pull an about-face and pursue a Paragon option instead.

I think (okay, please forgive how I'm going to put this) that you may be mistaken in thinking that Renegade and Paragon reflect different endings to particular missions or story events. Sometimes, they do, but in large part, they do not. Regardless of how you choose to flavor Shepard, he's still going to get Archangel and they're still going to tear Omega a new one.

Mordin is going to respect you and behave positively towards you regardless of how many Renegade or Paragon points you have, as long as you complete his loyalty mission and check off the right things. It has nothing to do with whether or not you choose to be mostly Renegade or mostly Paragon or how much you combine them.

I like that you can change disposition. That is a Strawman rebuttal. I am totally with you on that. Let's get that clear and finished right now. I am not against Shepard changing his disposition midway.

What I am against is bad dialogue and bad writing.

Your chief counter is essentially this:

hbi2k wrote:

What I am saying is that in a game with as much dialogue and as much player agency affecting the order and presentation of that dialogue as Mass Effect, there are GOING to be discrepancies between the delivery of one line and the one after it. It might happen more, it might happen less, but it WILL happen to some extent. Expecting the dev team to account for EVERY possible conversational permutation such that NO such discrepancy is EVER possible is simply unrealistic.

I'm going to come out right now and say that this is neither unrealistic nor undoable.

Japanese Visual Novels are famous for being rather spicy and filled with harems and such, but they are essentially giant dialogue trees with all manner of complex ways in which to navigate the story. They can accomplish such complexity with no discrepancy these days, so we know that it's possible.

Furthermore, the number of combinations is not infinite, so it only takes a bit of diligent checking to make sure that Shepard isn't castigating his crewmember for something he just forgave him for! I do not accept that it is impossible to achieve this, since they do it well enough to be perfectly good in some parts of the same game.

hbi2k wrote:

But the thing is, that third player really isn't making a roleplaying choice at all: they're just doing what gamers do and min-maxing for the sake of min-maxing. And if (for the sake of argument) 80% of players always pick the Renegade or Paragon option just for the sake of picking it, then I'd argue that they're not roleplaying at all. They're not making the decisions THEY want to make, or the decisions that they think their version of Shepard would make. They're making the decision that they think Bioware WANTS them to make, which sort of defeats the purpose of giving them a decision at all.

Again, I'm somewhat at a loss as to how this pertains to my main point. Are you implying that gamers who minmax are lesser, stupid gamers who get less than you do for their money's worth? I'm not getting the point, and I'm not getting how the point relates to my critique of ME2.

LarryC wrote:

I think (okay, please forgive how I'm going to put this) that you may be mistaken in thinking that Renegade and Paragon reflect different endings to particular missions or story events. Sometimes, they do, but in large part, they do not. Regardless of how you choose to flavor Shepard, he's still going to get Archangel and they're still going to tear Omega a new one.

Mordin is going to respect you and behave positively towards you regardless of how many Renegade or Paragon points you have, as long as you complete his loyalty mission and check off the right things. It has nothing to do with whether or not you choose to be mostly Renegade or mostly Paragon or how much you combine them.

I'm aware of that. What interests me is less the end result of the story and more that the story can play out in a number of different ways. It's a journey and not a destination and all that.

I'm going to come out right now and say that this is neither unrealistic nor undoable.

Japanese Visual Novels are famous for being rather spicy and filled with harems and such, but they are essentially giant dialogue trees with all manner of complex ways in which to navigate the story. They can accomplish such complexity with no discrepancy these days, so we know that it's possible.

I'll have to take your word for it; I can't say I've put enough time into those sorts of games to know how successful they are at managing dialogue trees nor whether they're fully voice-acted by excellent VAs as ME is. I would point out that (from what I know of them), their gameplay is entirely dialogue; it's a lot easier to get just one thing right than manage dialogue AND a combat system AND everything else that goes into a big AAA title like ME.

Again, I'm somewhat at a loss as to how this pertains to my main point. Are you implying that gamers who minmax are lesser, stupid gamers who get less than you do for their money's worth? I'm not getting the point, and I'm not getting how the point relates to my critique of ME2.

I'm not and it doesn't; I posted that as a response to an entirely separate conversational thread Scratched and I were having in the previous page of the thread.

Look, at this point we're just talking past each other and I'm really not interested in debating this any more, so if it's all the same to you I'm going to call it a day.

No prob.

How about this:

The dialogue options in Mass Effect 2 allow the player to act in ways that may not seem normal. In part because of that freedom offered to the player, dialogue options as written and voiced don't always flow naturally.

Maybe it could have been better written to compensate, but I personally appreciate the greater freedom the system offers.

Besides, who says I shouldn't be able to play a slightly insane Shep?

I don't get how locking out dialogue options based on points makes any sense - i've not played the game but i've been watching SpoilerWarning's run through it on youtube. The logic behind "because i did some good things in the past/stuck to the rules i will never do anything brutish or 'renegade' in the future" (and vice versa) is stupid.

Duoae wrote:

The logic behind "because i did some good things in the past/stuck to the rules i will never do anything brutish or 'renegade' in the future" (and vice versa) is stupid.

Agreed.