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Well I’ve seen the power of the lightning storm,
I’ve seen the endless ears of corn,
I’ve seen the lakes at the break of day,
And that shit takes my breath away.

“Freedom Road” – The Divine Comedy

Garnet's Screenshot from the guide I didn't know about... doh.

Well, not visually. The game isn’t the prettiest, but then sometimes I look at it, and I see the massive destructible geometry and I know what it means. I see what it’s trying to be. And that does the job. The reason I’m bringing you another tale from Wurm Online so soon is because I don’t live in the PC Gamer village on the starter server anymore. It was a ghost town. The people living there (few) were not the villagers I went to join, they were the vultures picking at the resources left behind by a brave group of travellers who went to the Freedom Kingdom. To start afresh. Expand! And get away from the griefers on the free server!

When I discovered this, it made a lot of sense. Walking around the Golden Valley you start in you can see the scars on the countryside where people have raped the landscape. Patches of trees are all signposted “Only chop v. old and overaged trees!”. Some trees are fenced up, like in real life, to keep people out. The chat tabs are filled with people complaining of thieves, and chatter rings of their friends who have left for the Premium servers in the wake of the news that Rolf, the creator of the world, is merging the PvP premium accounts with the free places. If you’re on the wrong side of that division you may find the starter area even less appealing.

I took the plunge. Zephyr’s arse was a false idol. The place I was now headed wasn’t even built yet. It was only founded a week ago. The land it was in was much more dangerous than the one I had left. It was much more sparsely populated, and the creatures roaming the landscape were larger, and more mystical than the wolves of the Golden Valley. Here I could look forward to Lava Fiends, Giant Scorpions, and the obligatory Huge Spider. The best part: I was still the same low-levelled schmuck that couldn’t handle a fight before. Imagine Frodo without the ring, or his mates.

I approached the transporting portal stone that would send me to Freedom. It gave me the option to think it over. I ignored it. I wanted to get stuck in with the business of building a new village, and being there at a new beginning! The screen went dark. After a few moments I found myself, instead of looking into a wood at the top of a hill, at the shore of a beach. Looking at a huge mountain over the sea, surrounded by some more. It was quite a breathtaking change, and it hammered in that we would be stuck here. There were no working magic stones here. It’s a one way trip.

The first thing I felt compelled to document was a paddock FULL of unicorns. Frickin' unicorns.

I had a quick browse on the PC Gamer Village blog to be sure about where it was. I’ve since found a step by step guide, but at the time I just read the Lewis & Clark style account of how the Mayors pioneered the site for the town. The first thing they went to was a “Lake Colossus”. Fortunately there was a sign pointing down a road that said “TO LAKE COLOSSUS”. Handy. First impression was:

"Bloody hell, this road's long."

But that was naive. See, the road wasn’t long. It was endless. If the road hadn’t actually led somewhere I would have titled this “Road to Nowhere.” This is a screenshot taken some 15 minutes later:

"Bloody hell, this looks much the same!"

I then thought I should inquire over the Kindgom chat if anyone online was from the village I sought. They were, and they agreed to meet me when I arrived. That was a weight off. On this server PvP is permitted, so there was always the (somewhat slim) chance that I’d be killed on sight, and my body would be returned to the starting area, which was already about half an hour’s walk behind me. Onward I went:

I hope that was joke.

It was going fairly well. That said, I did spot the giant corpse of a young scorpion. I didn’t want to see a large one, or what killed it. I was too concerned with running away at this point to take a screenshot! THEN… literally out of nowhere (and the chat started buzzing with this) fog… occured. Instantenous fog. Then people started saying things like “I need to get out of the forest!” and “I saw my first champion skorp in the fog!” So that cheered me up a lot. It was just as this was occuring that I reached, after a long long hike, Lake Colossus. Unfortunately that made the chances of a decent picture of said lake slim:

There's a lake there. Somewhere.

Then I went the wrong way. There were two directions and the passages I read from the explorer’s journal weren’t too clear… in fact they got lost themselves and ended up somewhere called SILENT HILL. There was no way I was going somewhere called Silent Hill in this fog!! Besides, after that the journal peters out into being a description of how they killed several deer. No… I had to go back to chat. A chap named Prospero guided me back the right way, and so I started to head right where I went left at the lake.

Lost in the pirate fog.

Not so much Silent Hill, but more Alone in the Dark.

Yes, night was falling again. But I wasn’t scared of the dark, no, because some clever sods had captured a couple of Lava Fiends, and built fences around them! Like living art street lamps, the lava fiends moped in their little fence, and I wandered past, amazed at the effort required to do that.

As I walked along the shore, a road only 1 tile wide that seperated the lake from the mining alongside a great mountain, I spotted a causeway, and a Colossus. Surely not another Colossus of Zephyr?! Nope… the Colossus of the Lake of the Colossus, of course. Prospero asks me where I am. I tell him, and he asks me if I can see his boat. The “Mud Skipper”. I do see it! My spirits lift considerably, and finally I’m on a boat with a genuine PCG Village person, who’s taking me to the new village. I’m not alone. When we arrive some new folks emigrating from the old village are there as well. We are all inducted into the new village.

My little ferry trip.

This means I now officially am a villager! We all get to work immediately. The village is still in the planning stage, so there’s a lumberyard to build (I’m doing that at the moment, though there’s much left to do now and I expect to find someone else has finshed it by the time I get back). There’s already barracks, an HQ, temporary housing… a dock with some boats. A jaunty sign that says “PCG Pirates!”

All good fun. I had cut down a tree, made a bunch of planks (as had Prospero) and I was building the walls for the Lumberyard when all of a sudden the villager chat fires up with mention of a Giant Spider being loose in the village. I’m half afraid to die (I think I’ll spawn again in the village but I’m not 100%) but also very curious. There were about 5 of us in the village at this point, and I head down from the hill where I was working. There it is. A huge spider just sitting there in front of the HQ. A couple of the guys have shut themselves in a house getting ready to fight it, then it turns on muggins over here. Brilliant. I have to run away and jump in the lake to get it to leave me alone! After that we all surround it, and fight it next to a tree. Once it’s dead it gets buried, and we all agree it’s time to call it a night.

It’s fun living in a village!

Mike Dunbar

P.S. Yes, it was too stressful getting nearly killed by the spider to take any screens of that too. I must get my “war corrospondent” head on.

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I'm the dumb pilgrim you've been hearin' for twenty days and smellin' for three.

I am tired. Tired, wet, malnourished, and I have no map or compass. I’m in a forest. It would be pitch black were it not for the light of the stars through the clouds and the light from a suspisiously pink moon. I am bereft of hope. I’ve been travelling for 3 days and 3 nights, lost on the moors. I’ve been literally foraging for my food, which has been nothing but lingonberries, and I’ve been drinking out of puddles. Just as my will to go on is at its lowest ebb and I’m going to give in to my fate at the claws of  the wolves stalking the hills,  I see something breaking through the trees: A silhouette. It’s an arse. It’s the massive arse of a huge statue – The Colossus of Zephyr.

“Finally.” I think to myself,  “Finally I am here. I’ve made it. My journey can finally begin.”


There, through the trees, a moon shone brightly.

There, through the trees, a moon shone brightly.

This, arguably, isn’t really how you’re meant to begin your journey on Wurm Online – a free, Java based, MMO by a Swedish dev team led by the enigmatic Rolf. And I did go through the tutorial motions. I spent some time in the starter town cutting wood, making kindling, setting a fire, doing some mining, and making planks of wood. Having done those things I was then told by the NPC that I might want to hang around the starter town for a bit and… yeah, do whatever I want.

So… I should explain how I ended up searching for the Arse of Zephyr.

I only heard about this game because I listened to a PC Gamer podcast yesterday afternoon. I was was doing what I’ve spent this week of holiday from work doing: Sitting at my PC wondering where I can go out this week, casually throwing blocks at the unfortunate “Grey Guy” from Sumotori Dreams. While asking eachother what they’ve been playing, Scottish Graham mentions this game Wurm Online. He explains that PC Gamer has its own villiage in the world, a nice little community in a strange game where you can live out a “Little House on the Prairie” life, but more importantly – every resource has to be made from scratch. Basically you’re a pioneer in a fantasy world with goblins and the like, only instead of the WoW thing of orchestrating raids and having that experience, you’re basically just trying to survive together with farms, blacksmiths, and other community projects. What makes it interesting is the politics that occur with your neighbours and neighbouring villages over resources and space, and the game’s strong suit – it’s use of destructible terrain (for mines, and tunnels!).

Graham then told an amusing story about the PC Gamer village. Another player in the game called Zephyr, who has been playing the game for years, had orchestrated a community project whereby dozens of people gave up their time and resources to build him a Colossus in the  middle of the village, on the top of a mountain. Graham has this to write on the PC Gamer Villiage blog:

Ah, Zephyr. God of the colossal statue, lord of all that is wonderful, his benevolent arse looms down on our little village like a smiling father. His statue’s arse, that is. Zephyr is, from what I have learnt in my first week of Wurm Online, a very powerful man. On the starting server, Golden Valley, he is the only person to ever have orchestrated the construction of a colossus, the giant statue that strides across the large mountain where the PCG village resides. Every morning when I emerge from my small wooden shack overlooking the western sea, I get a nice good view of that behind; hands firmly placed on hips, staring out across the lake in the east over Zephyr’s island villa.

The statue required “2000 clay”, and “2000 rock”. Landscaping, plinth-building, an entire infrastructure around the project, farms sat neglected, and other building works were put on hold for this superhuman effort, at the hands of a hilarious megalomanic. He’s not the Mayor, he’s not the King. He’s like some kind of fantasy land Don Corelone. I want to meet him.

So I knew what I’d do. Since my only prior experience of MMOs was City of Heroes (which I got tired of quite quickly) I’d join up, and then seek out the PC Gamer people, as we’d all (probably) have the PC Gamer Magazine/Podcast thing in common, and I had the info that there was a villiage out there near to the start that wasn’t openly hostile. But I didn’t know how to get there. I went to the villiage’s blog, and looked at a picture slideshow of directions. Sadly, due to the whole building/terrain mechanic, most of the landmarks in the pictures had gone. And also, I had no compass or map. So I had to bite the proverbial bullet (there’s no guns in the game) and Jeremiah Johnson it…

“Jeremiah, maybe you best go down to a town, get outta these mountains.”
“I’ve been to a town Del.”

There was a sundial that doubled as a compass in the starter town and I prayed it wasn’t just art. I head North. My character’s stamina and speed use depend highly on what terrain I’m traversing, so I try to stick to the roads at first, but I sharply realise that these twisting roads that fork off into settler’s cul de sacs are far too confusing to navigate and keep your direction. I decide to go as the crow flies. Alas, I decided this a bit too late, and was already horribly lost. The weird thing that Wurm Online manages, that Oblivion and other open world games haven’t (to me), was the genuine concern about being lost. It reminded me of a time on Exmoor when I was 10 and I got seperated from my family for an hour. A genuine fear crept over me. Then something awful happened.

It started to get dark.

I’d been told by that NPC to be careful of the dark. I’d strolled off into unsettled territory, but on the way there I’d come across the butchered corpses of wolves and mountain lions (now since this is an MMO there are emotes, and I have to say now that despite my fear I did “fart on the butchered corpse of the young mountain lion”). Whatever lay out there? Before I could find out I came across a fence. I followed it around, and found a stone-walled house. While looking back into the woods I had come a ginger-haired lady had approached me from behind, and said in a man’s voice (the default voice for all emotes) “HEY THERE!”. I was then told that the girl smiled at me. Meekly, and taken aback, I smiled in return. Then the event dialogue said that she was attempting to heal herself. “From what?” was my immediate thought, but before I could find out she had darted into her house and locked the door. Then I heard wolves.

I managed to get away without an encounter, but I was on edge. I kept going, but my nutrition had dropped to 30%, and I hadn’t drank any water since I started. It showed in my stamina. I was blundering slowly through the woods. I thought to get to some water.

Somehow on my journey I managed to walk to Centre Parks.

“Where you headed?”
“Same place you are, Jeremiah: hell, in the end.”

After a spot of bruise-enducing scree-running I was by the shore of a lake. There was an island in the middle, and on the opposite side I spotted a large statue. A colossus, if you will. I squeed in excitement (After that harrowing wolf thing and all) and confidently strode across the penisula feeling as though my troubles would all be over. Imagine my disappointment as I saw a sign infront of me. It read “Brohalla”. Brohalla? Where preppy frat-boy vikings go when they die? Fantastic. With a name like Brohalla I could only wonder what kind of reception I’d get, bedraggled and starving as I was (by this point the Lingonberry foraging was in full swing).  I didn’t get a chance to find out, however, as I was attacked by a goblin. A little goblin. I tried to fight it for a bit, but it got me dangerously low on health and there had been no combat tutorial, so I was learning as I went. I ran off and escaped the spooky git, but now I was hurt.

Finally, the sun rose. I was also at the coast. A mix of luck, and the general idea that the way I had been going was totally wrong, I followed the coast back up the way I’d come. Most of the day walking later (I endured another period of strolling off course on another goose-chase I thought was “home”), and I found myself near to starter territory. In a bay, and looking at a mountain. I had to take a chance. Though, by this point I was feeling the same delusion I did in real life on the Isle of Rum when I hiked across the island equally ill prepared (to last me the day I had only a litre of water, and a tin of sardines that I ate raw using two pens as chopsticks). I began to question why I was on this hike? Why don’t I press the X in the corner and end this torment? What would I even do when I got there? I couldn’t tell them this. I couldn’t say I spent TWO real life days looking for this place! I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. After half an hour of walking what must have been North-east I climbed that mountain and found a sign. A wonderful sign. “PCG Fort”. Night fell, and the rain lashed down. The villiage must only be close. But what way?

Not South.

I am a massive tool.

PCG Villiage is sickeningly close to the starter town. It’s literally 10 minutes walk North from it. Up the big hill infront of you. I’d been following the directions on the site (Take the road WEST out of Glitterdale) and that was my problem. The problem is it’s down to the community out of the game to make the maps. I suppose that’s not a problem, really, though. It’s not like whatever force that created the earth left a map behind. This is how it’s meant to be. It’s the robust survival, and community, that gives this game its edge. It’s an MMO, it doesn’t need to cater for the single player.

I have no land to call my own, and seeds to plant if I did. My foraging days are long from over.

Upon my arrival in PCG Villiage I found one villiager asking if anyone could lend a hand as he was building his house. “Brilliant!” I thought. I’ll help him build his house, and he’ll help me, and tell me how to, build mine. That’s as far as I’ve got. But we had a chat, and I was told I was allowed to build in the villiage. So at least I have a home. The next challenge is building a house for myself, then I suppose, finding my niche in society.

“Hawk. Goin’ for the Musselshell. Take me a week’s ridin’, and he’ll be there in… hell, he’s there already.”

Mike Dunbar

(I’m not sure how many parts this will turn into, but they probably won’t be consecutive)

Alcatraz Harry: Hated you. What? Didn't you know that, in prison, if you go to the same place twice dogs eat your bollocks?

If I were an old man, which I’m not, I’d tell you what it was like in the early 80s. As it stands, I was born in July 1986. However, I was brought up playing a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (I believe it was this early exposure to prolonged flashing lights and awful sounds that has made me so incompatible with nightclubbing culture). Between the Spectrum, and the BBC computers at my school (it occured to a few friends and I that we could sneak into a classroom during dinner and play on the BBC without detection, this would have been in 1996  – so I was retro even then), I’ve had a feel for the ways of old gaming. Games that were programmed by men in their bedrooms in basic. Games that weren’t made with concerns like “What is the deomgraphic for this kind of thing?”. Essentially, before Tom Hanks changed it all in “Big” by becoming a one-man focus group (Note to self: That wasn’t real).

What I’m trying not to rake over again is that it’s widely accepted that games are easier now. Developers spend more time and resources (and I’m not passing comment negatively)  in making their game accessible with tutorials, on balancing, and with things like the AI Directors of Left For Dead 1& 2 and the currently in development Napoleon: Total War (their aim to give you a challenge, a good fight, not to absolutely paste you). Extended introduction sequences try to ram the game’s core concepts into some blurb at the start, which is something that, by repetition, we’ve almost stopped noticing – as though we expect in real life that as space-marines we will only be told how to fire a gun once we’ve arrived on whatever tiny rodent infested planet we’re headed to. Why is this?

We pay this little “immersion tax” at the start of  a new game because we know we’ll be a bit lost if we don’t. It seems a bit unneccessary but there are cheques and balances in play. See, if you suddenly find yourself met with a grenade throwing system that’s alien to you in the middle of your cookie-cutter WW2 shooter, you’re going to break immersion completely checking out the manual online, or the key bindings, and you may bemoan not being told how to do it sooner. Imagine playing Fallout 3 without the slightly tedious Vault chapter at the start? As irritating as it seems, you may have needed to escape your play pen, shoot that radroach, and beat up Butch to get the swing of things in the DC Wasteland.

Now 9 times out of 10 I want a game that introduces its concepts elegantly, unpatronisingly and, at its best, without me even noticing. Braid was masterful. Yes, nothing subtle about a bit of landscape with “PRESS SPACE TO JUMP” written on it, but do you remember the moment you learned that in this platformer there was no need to fear the leap of faith? There was no great fanfare about it. You simply fell, missed or hit some spikes. And survived either way, because the time reversal key appeared next to frozen-in-time-Tim. What didn’t occur was a pop up message that paused gameplay and yelled triumpantly “YOU CAN REVERSE TIME! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?”.  That doesn’t mean Braid isn’t difficult. But it is forgiving. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, gamers don’t want to be forgiven.

Let’s talk about the 1s in 10s.

Spelunky:

Spelunky: See where it says "Game Over"? Yeah, get used to that.

And where better to begin than with a Roguelike? Let me just lay this one out: Derek Yu is a sadist. A wonderful sadist. Yes, Spelunky has a tutorial, but you’ll find quite early on that while the basic mechanics are demonstrated, nothing else is. This game is hard. Very hard. Death can come quickly, and with little explination. There is no debrief. You got killed by that moving block. Oh? You didn’t know it could move? You do now. BACK TO THE START. Why doesn’t this game make me want to stab things? The random level generation. The unbelievable sense of achievement when you accomplish something, and the knowledge that if you really want to take the risk you can hightail it out of that room and go to the next – though you may not be well equipped enough to survive.  It’s also full of charm. And clearly not every level is randomly generated, as I have chanced upon a crashed flying saucer at one point. There are new enemies, items, and all sorts revealing themselves gradually over time, and unlike most games it doesn’t require you to have actually progressed through the levels to do this. You will, of course, see new things as you do progress, but there’s enough hidden gems at each level to keep you coming back and slamming your head against the proverbial brick wall. You will die. A lot. Don’t kid yourself.

Sumotori Dreams:

Sumotori Dreams: It's not pretty, but then it's not even half a megabyte big.

Oh god this game is wonderful. Full of wonder. It sort of relies on your preconceptions of it to inform your judgement. If, like anyone who sees a game with two men in Sumo poses readying for a bout, you think this game is about fighting you are wrong. So very wrong. But you won’t care. It hates the player not because it is harshly difficult like Spelunky where progress is lost. It hates the player because there is practically no progress at all. It also can put you in unwinnable positions from the get-go, but much more importantly it just doesn’t want you to control it.

The fighters move like drunk toddlers. You control “Blue Guy”, but you would never know and in fact I didn’t for my first 5 bouts. It tells you the controls on the screen before every bout but not to help you, just to twist the knift a bit when you see how ineffective they are (you aren’t directly controlling him, so much as nudging him). This is intended, however, as the joy in this games comes from watching drunk ragdolls fall over, stumble into eachother, break things, attempt to get up, and trip eachother over. The physics ragdoll rigs are constantly in a battle to balance themselves from the moment movement occurs. Locomotion is actually a by-product of this, so technically it’s a physics masterpiece (especially when factoring in the size as well – 372kb). In essence, due to the spastic autonomous movement of the ragdolls,  it is a hilarious slapstick comedy game. The down key, once play commences, is a sit down key. What game has a sit down key?

The comedic nature of Sumotori Dreams isn’t lost on its creator, Peter Sotesz, clearly, as one of the arenas you can do battle in puts all four combatants at the top of a flight of stairs. Stairs they inevitably fall down. It also led me to pondering the amazing nature of a game that brings to the spotlight what other games take for granted: How hard is it for a robot sumo wrestler to climb bloody stairs?! Literally impossible. Sotesz’s angle on the site is “This is the game where beginners can beat hardcore players”. What he should have said is “This is the game where it doesn’t matter who wins, because it’s so incredibly funny to watch ragdolls fall over the littlest thing.”

VVVVVV:

VVVVVV: Nothing to do with voracious verbose vaudevillian villians/victors.

Back to games that hate you because they’re hard. VVVVVV, by Terry Cavanagh, is an 8-bit looking platformer, set in the most ridiculously health & safety defying space ship ever made. Another game where you will die more times than take a step. It’s got a soul, though, in that death doesn’t set you back too far. Your progress isn’t lost, and while there is a counter of your deaths I don’t think it negatively impacts things. It does hate you mind. There is a difficulty curve, yeah, but you have a one hit kill, and only one tool at your disposal: The ability to flip gravity. You have to navigate spiky tunnels aiming for small and/or moving platforms with a well timed gravity flip, and the chances of success first time are bloody slim. The good news is the lack of a load time, and the lack of a penalty for death make it horribly addictive, like running your tongue over a mouth ulcer.

I’ve chosen these three in particular because you can find free demos (or in the case of Spelunky the whole game) for free on the links provided. They’re all independent, also, which isn’t a coincidence. We’ve reached a time in gaming now where publishers are marketing for wider and wider audiences. This, I actually welcome. It’s about time the stigma of gaming was lifted, and hopefully us human beings will finally outnumber the leet-speaking weirdos ruining XBLA for everyone. But to cater to a wider audience you’re going to have to make concessions, and publishers understand that people have jobs, children, commitments. What we don’t have a lot of is time. So they need to make games that remind you how to play it while you’re playing it because they know not everyone can hammer it for 20 hours straight. They need to make games that gradually let you in so that inexperienced gamers can be included and so reviewers can say it’s appropriate for them to buy.

If gamers want to have an experience outside of this, it’s not the end of the world at all. There’s a renaissance happening right now. Brilliant experimental games are being released on the big platforms and given attention. Indie developers are getting genuine shots at the big time. In this month’s PC Gamer UK there is a 6 page article on Spelunky, and a two page review of VVVVVV you may want to peruse after you’re done here. So when people say games are getting easier, just remember, not all of them are. Some awesome games still hate you.

Mike Dunbar

Just a quick post about one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a game. That said, Machinarium one of the best games I’ve played in years in terms of its art direction, animation, and general feeling of character. It’s suprisingly emotional for a game about cartoon robots, and the puzzles are wonderfully oblique after the adventure game tradition. I won’t rattle on about why I like the game. But the soundtrack…

I’m a musician myself, so it’s no suprise for you to learn that I’m a collector of game soundtracks. Last week I was reliving my final moments of Mass Effect 2 while driving to work, the week before I was – for some reason – driving to work with various mixes of  “Still Alive” from Mirror’s Edge on in my car. This week I will be engrossed in the ambience/folk/electronica/jazz of Tomáš Dvořák’s score for Machinarium.

It’s a score like this that makes me balk at Jonathan Blow’s comment that scores written for indie games are weaker. Perhaps it was from his own experience. From his blog:

I didn’t want to try and commission game musicians to make songs, especially with a very low audio budget — the result is just not the same emotionally, even if it’s a high quality song, because they aren’t invested in the same way. And even just a high-quality song is hard to get, because there are a lot of not-so-hot game musicians out there.

Of course Jonathan Blow operating in San Fransisco and Amanita being a Czech studio (allow me to drift off into a dreamland of cooky European artist types working for cigarettes and wine) could have something to do with it. Either way, Tomáš Dvořák (who also goes by Floex – which is handy since there are TWO Tomáš Dvořáks at Amanita, despite there only being about 10 people there!) has brought a wonderful new sound to game music. Listen to a few previews here, in particular Mr. Handagote, and The Glasshouse With The Butterfly. Beautiful. The music brings to life the dreary washed out world of the game, and taps into the perkyness of the character you play. The mix of natural acoustic instruments, and electonica are like aural signatures of the decayed world, and the out-of-date looking machinery. The general feeling of “world music” about the folky rythms only add to the feeling of a world alien to our own, without resorting to overbearing synths. It’s a masterclass in atmosphere, though it shouldn’t be suprising as Dvorak had his beginnings as a visual artist.

Also, I should add, the little robot meets a band.

I know it looks like a sax. It’s a clarinet.

Mike Dunbar

I’ve been faced with the temptation to blog about games  with the wholly subjective fanboy eye, and give almost useless qualitative rhetoric about why it’s the best thing ever and that you should play it before you die many times since I started this blog, which is impressive as it was only a month ago. I have relented customarily, as a young man in the first throws of passion is quick to remind himself not to propose marriage, but now… now I’m hitched. Against my insticts I’m going to try and discuss a game a lot of us are discussing, and I’m going to try and be fair.

I totally respect her. I didn't even cop a feel on the first date.

Some people may sigh wearily, and that’s fine. This isn’t a perfect game. No such game exists, but I love her. And I would like to yammer on as to why. I’ll avoid spoilers.

I start with the admission that I didn’t play the original Mass Effect until this one came out. I’ve done one playthough of each, and I’m at the beggining of a second playthrough of the (I think) superior sequel. The second admission is that I didn’t play Mass Effect until after I’d completed Mass Effect 2 despite buying them both on the same day (via Steam). CALL MYSELF a GAMER?! Yes, I do. Sorry. I was too tempted by shiny graphics and all my favourite podcasts and blogs talking about the sequel, and for some bizarre psychologial reason the promise of day one DLC, to hold off playing it. That and I’d heard all about the “broken combat” of the first one.

This isn’t my first experience with Bioware, don’t worry. I did play Baldur’s Gate 2 (I know, not 1) and KOTOR. I can’t really tell you why I hadn’t played Mass Effect. I assume it was a money thing, or that I’d simply never got around to doing it. For instance, in all this time talking about Bioware I also haven’t got Dragon Age: Origins. I know. I should go to hell. I also haven’t got Blade Runner on DVD.  It’s just one of those things that I managed to let pass me by, though I know I should have taken care of it.

I digress. The reason I’m taking the fanboy stand on this game of all games (within mere weeks of its release, too) is because it represents something wonderful and important to this game industry we all love so much: clarity of vision. That’s clarity of vision on a big scale, too. It’s easy for an indie to stay true to their beloved design, but in the big boy’s game your idea has to get passed through so many filters it becomes a real testament to how good an idea is to survive it. I’m not saying all Triple A games are good because of who published them, a thousand times no, but an idea that’s difficult to pitch financially – a trilogy where you can’t even wrap up the first game just in case, because the second game follows on, and it’s a key part of the marketing – that makes it because of the developers work, that deserves a bit of credit.

I suppose EA deserve a bit of credit, but then they have a lot of my money so I won’t bother.

Okay, so anyone who’s been following the game’s progress will know that like the first one, choice plays a big role. Choice plays a role in the significant ways that the Fable series has yet to manage, actually, but I won’t go there. You would also know about the hoohah around importing your ME1 save game to form the base of your character for ME2. That, I think has worked very well in my experience so far. The events of the first game are referenced and embedded in the universe of ME2 from the get-go, down to the gender of your Commander Shepard, the choices made in ME1, their general manner, and suchlike. If this wasn’t continued throughout the game, and offered you different possibilites not found in the default quest (with no imported character), than it would be little more than a neat trick. What it is, instead is massively effective (had to, so sorry) tool to immerse you in the continued narrative of your Shepard (and I’ll briefely mention here that forming the second act of a trilogy leaves it with certain restrictions you have to accept when Bioware are formulating a tight story arc over three games. If you feel as though your choices in the original Mass Effect haven’t been considered as much as you’d like, remember that it’s perfectly likely you just haven’t experienced their consequences yet – especially re: The Rachni, in my opinion).

I’m not embarrased to reveal that at several key moments in this game I punched the air in glee, exhiliration, relief, and (in-character) anger. I also chewed my nails in worry and anticipation. And at one bleak moment in my own life licked my lips in anticipation. That’s emotional engagement. That’s the holy grail. And deciphering it is the key to the world, my son. The story is fantastic, I’ll say. The characters for the most part are wonderfully realised and you want to learn about them (I don’t much care for Jack, or the DLC character Zaeed, though his loyalty mission is very dramatic). And because the squad number is increased greatly over ME1, you’re bound to end up liking at least two of them, which is all you need for a squad if you play your class wisely.

Now there will be those who maintain that this “choice” thing is destructive to narrative. I would say it depends by what degree if choice we’re talking about. I railed (after my own moderate fashion) the elements of choice in Bioshock*, and I’ve always looked at “emergent gameplay” with something of a suspicious eye. I sometimes wonder when I’m trashing cars in GTA4 if the “emergent gameplay” is what I slip into doing when I’m bored by the missions and narrative, and I haven’t realised that I want to stop playing the game yet. It may be endemic to GTA4 since it tries to force a heavy narrative on you (compare it with the loose approach of Saints Row 2 and you’ll see what I mean), but when I’m mucking about making choices in that game I’m actually less engaged in the experience because I’m consiously aware that I’m messing about instead of getting on with the game. The other big critiques of “choices” in narrative are that they’re too binary to reflect a real choice, and that the more you have the weaker your narrative structure becomes. Let me shock you all by proclaiming in my weediest fanboy voice that Mass Effect 2 averts this trope. Sort of.

This is the screen shot I've seen the most, so I'm adding creedence to my post by using it as well.

Choice in the Mass Effect Universe comes in three flavours. There’s the narrative choices that affect the world in the grand scale, there’s choices that won’t really reverberate to everyone because either outcome is the same more or less – the choice is how you get there (these are often the less drastic Paragon/Renegade situations – think of things like getting discounts at shops), then there’s the usual RPG stuff – levelling and assinging points, squad building. That sort of thing. It’s this three-pronged attack that really makes the choice thing work. Mainly because unless you’ve tried to write a blog about it, you don’t recognize them as three different things. The impression you get playing it is “Cor blimey, everything matters!” The wonderful truth is, yes – it does matter. I don’t want to spoil anything, but yes. Every element of how you play the game, all three kinds of choice I have mentioned, all work in what must be a very sophisticated algorithm to dictate the nature of important plot points, and the glorious kicker – plot points that will be carried forward into the final installment. I would like to highlight the second kind I mentioned. The smaller (though sometimes in the main quest) situations where the outcome to a situation is more or less going to be the same, but how you get there isn’t. A lot of people wouldn’t call that a real choice. I’d say it’s possibly the most immersive kind. During the quest, like in life, you’re going to be in situations that are going to end one way. How you deal with it, the decisions you make contemplating it, is the part we most relate to. By getting into the mind of Shepard and thinking “What would he do? My Shepard” and considering the consequences (you obviously never know what the consequences of anything might be) you get more immersed.  These moments interspersed with the bigger choices (and the fact that you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to say or do) keep up the momentum and excitement of The Universe. The fact that your Paragon and Renegade points also serve a purpose in the mechanics of the game (in a sort of universally karmic morality system  of sorts) gives them the neccessary depth to stop them being a superficial RPG add-on**.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the first game to use choice mechanics. It’s not even the first Bioware to use choice mechanics. But it is definitely the most robust use of one. This game is a benchmark for many reasons, and I’ve only discussed one here, but all I’ll say (in a typical fanboy manner) is that you owe it to yourself to play this game, man.

I’m not going to mention the romance. Except then, when I did.

Mike Dunbar.

P.S. Oh, and I got one of the hoodies. The Bioware Mass Effect hoodies that are selling out all the time? I got one. So, yeah. Fanboy.

* Which there isn’t: The game being about being a brainwashed slave, essentially. Except when there is: Oh, but choose which plasmids you use to fight the bad guys and play the game any way you want! But really there isn’t: But you’d better use a lot of electricity, as there’s lots of water around. And fire if you ever want to get past the bits blocked by ice. Which there are many. Except when there is, but it doesn’t matter: The little sisters.

**Fable and Fable II both suffer from a morality system that is superficial to the point of unimportance. If you do bad things you look bad, but so what? And maybe you need so much evil to unlock a demon door, so you do some bad, you unlock it, and then you do some good to compensate. What was the point? People on the street say different things to you if you look good or bad, but since they convey all the depth of a gap-year student in a Disneyland Mickey Mouse costume – waving inanely and laughing for no reason around you – then why would you care what they think? You can barely interact with them one on one (though Molyneux has promised to rectify this with Fable 3. But then again, Molyneux is always promising things. He promised to water my garden last weekend, and he’s still not helped my tree grow.).

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