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How to make the best of the weakest parts: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Before we begin, I will spoil literally everything about Mass Effect Andromeda here.  If you have not completed it, please do not read any of this article.  I don’t have time to put any other spoiler warning up, so keep that in mind.

So, the Kett were pretty much the weakest part of Mass Effect Andromeda.  The Archon was basically a giant missed opportunity and the rest of the Kett were basically just a redeux of the Reapers, by way of the Borg.  That was actually kind of lame, especially after so much build up and an attempt to give them something of an identity through a pretty good extended side quest.  Here’s the thing though, the Kett might actually be good for Mass Effect in the long term, and would actually be able to fill the exact same niche as the Reapers, while doing it a lot better than they ever did.  It won’t even be that hard.

Before Andromeda, the Reapers were the weakest part of Mass Effect, for a lot of reasons.  The conversation with Sovereign on Virmire is one of the best science fiction scenes I have ever experienced.  “You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”  It’s an insane line, one of the best in the series (up there with “Had to be me, someone else might have gotten it wrong.”) and nothing ever lives up to it.  No interaction with the Reapers, through the rest of the next two games, any of the comics or the terrible tie in novels, manage to reach the heights that the discussion with Sovereign manages to do.  After that, the Reapers are pretty much faceless Elder God rip offs, and also manage to contradict all of the cool things Sovereign said.   It would be impossible, actually, to match up with what he said and manage to have a coherent story, but it’s still ultimately disappointing.

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Image copyright Bioware/Electronic Arts. Also, the Reapers never manage to be this cool, again, either.

The game, from then on, becomes entirely about the Reapers, and they take over the narrative, but they’re not very interesting.  They also contradict themselves a lot, never living up to their promised potential, but what’s really boring about them is that they have no identity.  In a series where the “humanization,” for literally lacking a better term, of the alien is a major theme in the story, the Reapers stand apart.  While that was probably the thematic point of the Reapers, it doesn’t work for them.  Sovereign, and to a much lesser extent, Harbinger, try to act as the “face” or identity of the Reapers, nothing gives them any sense of character.  Even the Geth, who are also synthetic beings with a gestalt mind, get a lot more personality.  They’re given goals, identities and characters, as well as an engaging backstory, that allows them to grow beyond being simple death machines that ran the cute engineer girl’s people off of their home planet.  They exist simply to be an antagonist (and then they burn the setting down as one final “fuck you” to Drew Karpshyn), lacking any nuance or narrative interest.  In short, they’re boring.  Also, they don’t really fit with the rest of the setting.

The Kett are basically the Reapers 2.0.  The Reapers show up, eat everything to make them a part of who they are, are an implacable army of destruction and their power is so much greater, the Council species barely have a fighting chance (and then they don’t because at the end, someone half remembered some of the things Sovereign said in that awesome conversation you had with him on Virmire).  The Kett manage to be exactly that.  However, they have one thing that makes them different from the Reapers.  Also from the Borg, to which they are also quite similar.  See, the Kett are people.  Yeah, they have their old lives stripped of them and there’s this quasi-religious element to their new identity that forces them to live this creepily Spartan lifestyle, but this seems to be cultural, not genetic.  The few Kett we get a chance to interact with have their own unique personalities and are basically people.  Terrible people, sure, but they’re people.

This is where it works.  Since we can actually interact with them, they can fit into the Mass Effect paradigm really well.  If we can get some actual interesting Kett characters, even if they’re bad guys that we have no chance of managing to get on our side, they can be compelling and interesting.  Someone who genuinely sees Ryder as a rival, maybe even like how General Kang was to Captain Kirk, as an example, or maybe take that religious aspect the Archon had and make something with it.  Like a Paladin type character, a crusader, who is convinced it’s her holy duty to destroy the Initiative.  There’s a lot to play with, and that makes them interesting.  By making them people, it does mean that the game is never going to get the epic scene with Sovereign, but if that means we get to have human villains with thoughts, dreams and desires, as well as a way to deal with them that, potentially, isn’t violence (even if one can’t come up in the game), that makes for a better overall experience.  I’m willing to sacrifice that one moment for a longer term goal.

Strangely Underrated: Mass Effect Andromeda Review

Let’s start by getting everything out of the way.  Mass Effect Andromeda is a good game.  It’s a solid successor to the original trilogy, and while it doesn’t always do things right, neither did the original game.  In a lot of ways, Andromeda is Bioware at its finest and the game feels like it’s the best thing they’ve ever produced.  Other times, it really feels like Bioware at its most Bioware, relying too heavily on their own tropes, animations and concepts that don’t always pan out.  Ultimately, the game is good much more often than it is bad, and even when it’s bad, it’s more disappointing than anything else.  What it really comes down to is a game with a lot of expectation, and meeting it most of the time.

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Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Mass Effect Andromeda picks up a little bit more than 600 years after the original trilogy, with a group of arks having been sent to the Andromeda galaxy (some 2.5 million light years away in real life) for the purposes of science and exploration.  To the characters, the game picks up in between parts 2 and 3 of the last game, meaning that while the players know that the arks were probably sent to hide humanity (and the asari, krogan, salarains and turians) from the Reapers, the characters actually don’t.  Once they drop out of faster than light travel and begin to defrost the people in cryo stasis, the Andromeda Initiative, the organization the player works for, find that all of the potential colony worlds are a bust due to some sort of dark matter interference.  Combine this with an ancient race of robots, alien invaders that don’t come from the Milky Way Galaxy and the indigenous people caught in between, there’s a lot going on here and a lot of things for the writers to play with.

Unfortunately, the main story is mostly about the main character fighting off the invaders as the new “Pathfinder” with a super AI and advanced combat abilities.  It’s not that it’s a bad story, nor does it ignore the ideas of immigration and colonization, and the good and the bad that comes from it, but it’s a little disappointing that the story is a fairly typical hero’s journey, with all of the more interesting ideas being used as little more than set dressing.  The game introduces a lot of ideas, themes and concepts, mostly dealing with what it takes to start from scratch further away from anyone else in the universe they know than anyone has ever been, but not all of them are followed up on.  Further, a lot of the new ideas for this galaxy, introduced to make the galaxy seem different and alien from our own, don’t get enough development and are not fleshed out enough.  Much like with the first game in the series, the game ends with more questions than answers.  Then, with the game being a new IP and sequels pitched right from the beginning, it felt like a mystery waiting to be solved.  Here, as an established game, with a lot of uncertainty about the direction of the series, they feel more like storylines unresolved.

The worst offender is the Remnant, technology left behind by someone, so mysterious that even the native Angara don’t know where it came from or who made it.  All that’s left is mysterious, advanced terraforming technology, which serves as the main mechanic for the game, and their robot guardians.  Who or what the Remnant are is a main element of the story, and while some parts of it do get answered, the resolution leaves the story hanging and uncertain as to what the developments actually meant.  There’s a great reveal at the end of the game, which has huge ramifications for the newer setting, but the game does nothing with it.

Mechanically, the game is mostly solid.  It plays nice, handles well, and it’s good to have a vehicle that is actually fun to drive.  Planet maps that aren’t all mountain ranges also helps, as well as the six wheel drive function.  The Nomad is much better than the Mako or the Hammerhead, and the planets, while fewer in number than in the first Mass Effect, serve as nice RPG maps, with tons of interesting quests (a step up from Dragon Age Inquisition) and lots to see.  Plus, they’re actually designed with the Nomad in mind, making it less of a chore to get around.

Combat, too, is a refined and improved version of Mass Effect 3’s combat system.  The ability to change powers at will more than makes up for the smaller power suite given to Ryder, and while changing classes at will doesn’t quite work out like they intended, a little bit of tweaking and balancing will do a lot to fix everything.  Plus, the fact that Ryder can specialize into anything makes for some really interesting builds, although, balance is still a problem here.  Adding the jump jets and more advanced AI makes the fights a lot more dynamic than just grabbing cover and pulling out the biggest sniper rifle, especially when taking into account the several new and old weapons, each with their own kind of firing system.

The weapons, however, are also an example of the RPG elements getting in the way of game.  Weapons have to be researched and crafted, using resources, because it’s an RPG and of course we have to have a crafting system.  Because research points are scarce, it’s difficult to branch out and buy new weapons, especially late in the game, because every level of firearm needs to be leveled up, then built, separately.  Every 10 levels, each weapon needs to get more powerful, and the game doesn’t do it automatically, so the player needs to spend and increasing number of research points to buy the next level of gun, then spend more resources to build it.  Fortunately, it’s possible to deconstruct the old weapon to get some of the resources back, but it’s still a lot of steps with a lot of moving parts.  Since research points are limited, it’s generally not worth branching out in a save file, because if you’re at level 30, all of your guns need to be level 5, and you can’t just research the level 5 blueprint of a new weapon, you have to research 1-4 first (although you don’t have to build them).  Also, while it’s really cool each weapon has its own unique firing system, the game doesn’t really explain what that is, having to make due with some hard to read stats (which can be somewhat conflicting and are terribly balanced) and a couple of sentences of description.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the graphics, most of which has been fixed with a patch.  Yes, the game has poor animations and there’s a lot of Bioware talking head syndrome, but a lot of it is fixed and the problems weren’t quite as bad as initial reports made them out to be, at least on the PC.  The bigger issue is that Bioware is reusing animations from Dragon Age Inquisition instead of coming up with new ones.

There’s a lot to criticize, and I know I spent a lot of time sounding like I’m trashing it, but these don’t completely diminish the enjoyment of the game.  There are lots of issues, but it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and it feels like actually exploring a new galaxy.  The game needs work for the sequel, but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s definitely worth the trip.

Games in the Classroom: Teaching Games

I’m taking a short break from Game Anatomy.  A couple of reasons for this.  First, I need to do some research on a couple of items I want to write about, but I also need to finish a couple of games before I write about them.  This includes Dark Souls III, but I’d also like to finish Twilight Princess HD, since I have a bit to say about that in regards to it, Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time (and Majora’s Mask if we have time).  Also, this is an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for years, and it’s something I’m somewhat ready to write about.  We’ll see if that supposition is correct.

I’ve mentioned my former day job as a journalist on this blog before, but I don’t know if I said that when I quit my first newspaper job, I moved into education.  Mostly, I wasn’t happy  in journalism, but I also felt there was more I could do as a person as a teacher than as a journalist.  Also, journalism was getting in the way of the writing I actually wanted to do, but the first two are a lot more important.  Anyway, since getting involved in education, I’ve noticed that games are an important part of learning, and I’ve been trying to find ways to bring games into the classroom, from utilizing game design elements in my lesson plans to actually attempting to teach a video game in in the classroom.  One of these, so far, has been more successful than the other.  It’s kind of surprising which one is which.

This past year, I took a week to teach to a group of seniors, as a test, the first episode of Life is Strange.  Life is Strange is an episodic neo-adventure game not unlike the Walking Dead or new King’s Quest games featuring a girl named Max Caulfield who can alter time.  There are several decision points in the game, and using the ability to alter time can change these decisions.  Each decision can change how the story goes, but, as the story goes on, altering the past can also alter what options Max has.  It’s not super complicated, it’s just that she can remember everything she’s done, so sometimes she can get new options if she’s seen something enough times.  It’s very cool, and I used it to approach literary analysis in a different way.

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Image copyright Square Enix. Also, she really doesn’t look like that in the game.

One of the things I was observing with my students was a difficulty approaching analysis of literary devices and themes.  I wasn’t sure if the issue was technical on their part, instructional on my part, or just a lack of engagement.  My actual findings on this are a going to remain secret, but I had a feeling that a video game would help ease people into it.  My first thought being that my kids would have more interest in a video game than a 200 year old book (although I think my kids responded quite well to Frankenstein), my second being that an interactive medium would allow for a greater element of engagement.  Books are definitely an interactive medium, at least more so than television or film, but they are not at the level of a game.  Third, I really had an idea that the changing of story, the concept of actual, if limited choice, would allow the students to really understand literary analysis if I focused their analysis on the choices.

So, my first idea was to teach the Rachni choice in Mass Effect.  It’s a weighty choice, and it feels bigger than it actually turns out (ugh, Mass Effect 3, what don’t you ruin?), but it also required a lot of set up and buy in from the audience.  Certainly, when the player is right in the game, it’s great, but to throw a bunch of kids, many of whom don’t play video games like I do, or at all, into something like that, it wouldn’t work.  So, I needed something that required a small amount of games literacy, and would also require a limited amount of buy in for the students to get involved.  So, I did an adventure game, which is about as simple as far as gameplay mechanics goes.  All of the interactions with the game are done simply and are easy enough for everyone to understand.

Ultimately, there were about three things I learned.  First, this game has the word “fuck” a lot more than I thought, but still less than I heard in the halls when I was a student.  Second, buy in and engagement are not as hard as they seem.  Many of the kids were sucked into the game right away.  It doesn’t have the best dialogue or story, and honestly, the main characters kind of suck, but it feels fun and has a very teenage appeal.  Third, literary analysis is still difficult, no matter how sucked in you may be, and additional instruction was still required.

Speculation: Using Social Links to Improve Gaming

So, nobody read the the last article, but that’s okay, because I still have more to say.  One of the things I touched upon is how well the Social Link’s worked for Persona 4 and how well it could work for other games in the genre.  As an example, I’m going to be using Mass Effect, specifically 2, as a means of showing how the game could be improved by using the Social Link, or a system similar to it, in order to help tie the rest of the game together.  As an aside, the germ of the idea was planted in my head by Egoraptor in an impromptu AMA he did on the Game Grumps subreddit.  I couldn’t actually find the original comment, because it is SUPER buried, but he said it first.  So, without further ado, here we go.

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Image Copyright Atlus and Anime International Company Inc.

One of the reasons I’m using Mass Effect is because Yu and Commander Shepard actually have a lot in common, at least, as far as RPG protagonists go.  They’re primary interest is about connecting with their crew and trying to make their lives better.  They’re also courageous ultimate heroes, to which no one can really compare in universe to, but that’s more of an RPG trope than anything having to do with what they have in similarities.  The other reason is because Mass Effect is billed as a game about choices and character, and yet, it doesn’t do as good a job.  I choose 2 specifically because I think it’s far and away the best in the series, and because while the optional stuff is technically optional, it’s not really.  I wrote about it in Game Anatomy how the Loyalty Missions did a really good job of tying Shepard to her party, but I feel like there could have been more, and the Social Link system is the way to do it.

So, one of the problems with the game is that Garrus is always calibrating.  I mean, normally Vakaraian makes the best boyfriend in the game (sorry Gay Male Shepard fans, but it’s true and you know it, but at least Cortez is a close, close second), but he spends all his time in the back fiddling with the damn guns.  Part of this is because the game is open and he quickly runs out of shit to say.  The other problem is that his story is a few conversations, with no wrong answers, a mission that, by the standards of the game, is okay at best (and I can’t remember, despite having the wiki entry on it open and reading it) and then he bones you (or you get high fives if you’re a dude?  I don’t truck with stuff that’s not canon).  I mean, that’s it.  I guess in 3 we get a pretty tearful ending, but that happens regardless of what I do.  Commander Shepard deserves better than this.

mass-effect-3-the-real-female-shepard

She deserves better.  Image copyright EA, Bioware and Bleeding Cool

With a Social Link style system, I’d actually have to talk to Garrus about who he is.  See, Garrus wants to be Batman.  He’s a trained soldier who wants to use his training for violence for a good purpose, and he acts as something of a foil to Wrex, Tali a little bit and even Shepard herself.  He doesn’t really know what his purpose is, because his whole life has centered around violence, and that’s kind of an inherently destructive thing, but what he wants is to help people.  He’s tried everything: the military, the police, even working with Shepard once before, and with the exception of Shepard, none of it has worked.  He says it’s because he only sees black and white, but Garrus is really less of a moral absolutist than he lets on.  His issues are many fold, but one of the major ones is that he doesn’t really see the big picture.  It’s why Fade betrays him, it’s why his crew is wiped out and it’s why everything falls apart on him.  He can’t see the bigger picture.  Here’s the thing though, he’s got talent for being a squad leader, but only if he’s loyal (only Miranda can survive being squad leader without being loyal).  With Shepard’s guidance, he can actually do it.

In the vanilla game, all Shepard has to do is run him through a mission and he’s good.  That…sucks.  No, seriously, it sucks and it’s only partially because Garrus’s loyalty mission is among the more boring in the game.  A Social Link system would set up the discussions to be timed at certain points.  If you haven’t reached those points, with flags both in the game and in Garrus’s in-game story, when ever you talk to him, all you get is a couple of pre-recorded lines.  First, these lines change.  Each step of the way, he’s going to have a different set of lines, plus he’ll have a few generic ones that, since it’s Garrus, are actually hilarious.  Also, unless he has something very specific to say, he’s not going to start the dialog cutscene, and will instead speak as if he were a regular NPC.  This, by the way, applies to all of the members of the crew.  I’m just using Garrus because he’s the best.

When the player gets to the flagged sections, then they have to have a real conversation about what happens, and Shepard needs to actually try to help Garrus with his problems.  She needs to show him what it takes to be a leader, and this means the player is going to need to make choices.  These aren’t Paragon or Renegade choices, but they can be, although, for simplicity’s sake, let’s make it so her stock responses are different based on which side is the highest, but whatever, this is a fantasy, let’s go all out.  There are also Paragon and Renegade versions of the right choices.  Here’s the thing, you need to tell Garrus what he needs to see.  The problem is his world view, he knows what he wants, but he doesn’t know how to get there, and Shepard can’t just placate him.  That’s not her job.  Instead, she needs to show him how to be the right kind of leader, to see the forest and the trees and know how to communicate both to his people.  If you screw up, the game flags two choices, the back up conversation, or it goes forward.

If it goes forward, the storyline continues.  If the player fucks up, then you get a second chance.  In this second chance, it’s a different conversation, not a replay of the last one, which is built on the choice Shepard gives.  There could actually be a number of reasons for this: a Paragon Shepard choosing the correct Renegade choice and Garrus not buying it, saying something that is outright stupid, or just confusing the poor bastard and making him doubt himself.  This second conversation will only advance if Shepard is willing to tell Garrus what he needs, but if it fails, then you can’t ever make Garrus fully loyal.  You can get his mission, you can still make him your boyfriend and maybe he’ll survive the Suicide Mission, but he becomes and unknown factor now.  If you screw up, a third line of conversations run through the rest of the game.

Perhaps, for the forgiving players, maybe if Shepard corrects her choices, she can get back to the top conversation track and make him fully loyal.  That’s going to be complicated, but not impossible.  One the whole, this, I feel, ties the game in more together, and makes the shooty-shooty parts less distinct from the talky-talky bits, and that’s a huge hurdle the game had overcome.  Now, if only there was a way to fix that third game.

Game Anatomy: Social Links

Persona 4 has been called, for good reason, the best JRPG ever made.  The gameplay is top notch, the characters are some of the best in video games and the story is a lot of fun.  Any accolades it gets, it deserves, and one of the things that gets talked about a lot as an example for being good is the Social Link system, which was an expansion over the previous game’s version of the same system.  The Social Link isn’t just great for Persona, either, it’s one of the best examples of roleplaying and conversation systems in RPGs, and it’s a shame more games don’t actually utilize it, or something similar to it.

Most of the time, during a Game Anatomy, I talk about how the system worked well, or made, the game it comes from, and we’ll do that here, but the thing about Social Links is that they’re an outgrowth of something of a problem within RPGs, Japanese and Western, and that’s character interaction and roleplaying.  RPGs are not, and cannot be, table top roleplaying games, and as such, it means the interactions between characters within the narrative is going to be a lot different from how it would be done in a table top game, even if RPGs are attempts at replicating or emulating that experience (in various ways, each which change depending on the game).  Most games have the player make a decision and maybe it will connect with a karma meter or a personal connection meter with a party member.  It’s good, but it’s not great, and in a lot of games (read: everything from Bioware) it’s more of a side thing than something that’s full integrated into the system.  Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel is great, but it’s a limited form of interaction for both the player and the game.  I can use it to make sure the Iron Bull or Tali fall in love with me, or get slightly different reactions from characters, but that’s it.  It has only a limited impact on the game.  The Social Links aren’t like that.  They’re directly integrated into the whole experience of the game, and while it may not completely alter scenes, that’s not what’s important about the Social Links.  They alter the gameplay, tie the narrative to the gameplay, and work together with both of these thematically, but before we talk about that, we need to talk about Yu.

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Image Copyright Atlus and Anime International Company Inc.

That’s Yu Narukami, the protagonist of Persona 4 and all around good guy.  Sure, he’s a silent protagonist who mostly serves as a cipher for the player to hang out with a bunch of cool people and fight demons, but Yu actually manages to have some character.  He’s a man with heart and courage, and I don’t mean that in the generic hero meaning, I mean this guy is a better candidate for the Heart ring than Ma-Ti is.  Yu genuinely cares about people, and (if you play him right), isn’t going to mince words or screw around with them, either, because sometimes, people need to know the real, unvarnished truth, because that’s what the game is about.

The way the game does this is through Social Links, which is a multi-level system where, after a certain number of conversations with a character, Yu grows closer to them.  When Yu hits a milestone in their relationship, that Social Link grows.  This does include dating, and it means the closer you are with a party member, the better you work together in combat (You became friends with Yosuke.  Yosuke will now die for you) and it sounds a lot like how Dragon Age does it, but it’s not.  It’s better.

The first reason it’s better is that it’s not about buttering up someone with gifts or agreeing with them until they’re your best friend.  See, Persona 4 isn’t about that kind of bullshit.  It’s about the truth, and sometimes, Yu needs to tell something they need to hear, whether they want to hear it or not (and a lot of times they don’t).  The major theme of this game is that humanity has darkness inside of them, and everyone, no matter who you are, as some sort of darkness festering inside them and it cannot be conquered.  No one is ever going to get rid of that darkness inside them, because that darkness is them.  It’s the part of them they don’t like, they don’t want to hear and don’t want to recognize is a part of them, but no one is going to be a stronger person if they don’t recognize that’s a part of who they are.  In Persona 4, Yu becomes friends with people by helping them confront the darkness within them and accepting who they are.  He does this by listening to them, then saying what they need to hear.  They don’t always like this.  Sometimes it straight up pisses them off, but they recognize it’s right and that you’re not trying to hurt them, and they come around.

Here’s the thing, though, Social Links are not automatic.  The player needs to make Yu say the right thing, and the player can screw it up.  This means the player also needs to be caring and attentive, just like Yu (or they can use a guide, but most of them really aren’t hard to figure out).  The player is directly responsible for making sure that Yu does the smart thing, and the Link will not advance if the player doesn’t give them what they need.  It’s not a binary pass/fail, either.  It’s a spectrum.  Yeah, there’s an optimal path, but one wrong response won’t ruin a friendship, and it makes the relationship feel that much more nuanced and organic.  As a player and as a character, Yu must guide his friends and family through real conversations to get to know them, and help them confront who they really are.

The second reason it’s better than Dragon Age, or anything else in RPGs (except maybe Witcher III, but Witcher III isn’t as well written as this.  This is not a complaint against Witcher III) is because it’s directly tied into the game’s narrative.  The game puts the player on a time limit: there’s a year of game time, and each day, the player only has a limited number of things they can do, and this includes going to fight monsters and save people.  One of the big issues with a lot of other RPGs is that the PCs relationship with the rest of the party is sort of separate.  It’s completely optional, and leads to optional quests, and while it’s less pronounced in some games (Mass Effect 2), it’s completely obvious in others (Dragon Age: Origins and Inquisition).  Outside of a few comments from some characters, it’s completely divorced from the rest of the game, but in Persona 4, becoming friends with people IS the whole game.  Each Social Link is its own story line, and while technically optional, each of these storylines converge with the main narrative.  They don’t just connect thematically, they connect with the overall narrative too, and not just party members, Dojima and Nanako, although for them, the connection is a lot more direct.  Each PC (after Yosuke and Chie) have their own dungeons, and bosses that are their darker natures.  Their Social Links, which are established AFTER you defeat their Shadow selves, are about coming to terms with that darkness and how they relate to the group and the overall mystery.  Sure, maybe the sports guys or the drama club girl (I’ve never actually joined band club in this game) may not tie directly into the mystery, but they help Yu grow as a person and further his character development.  They, also, of course, tie in thematically, but we’ve covered that.

From there, though, there’s even more to it.  The story takes this and integrates it into the game.  The PCs are powered by extra planar monsters that give them magic and super powers, allowing them to fight and save people in the game’s dungeons.  Yu has the extra special ability to change out these monsters, called Personas, and can build new ones.  He’s limited, however, in his ability to craft new ones by his level and his Social Link score.  See, each monster has its own Arcana, relating to Tarot cards.  Yosuke is the Magician, Dojima is the Hierophant and Rise’s is the Lovers, and different Personas correspond with the different Arcanas.  The stronger your bond with a person of that Arcana, the stronger Personas of that Arcana you can make, and the stronger your Personas of that Arcana are.  Yu is literally as strong as his friendships.

There’s more to this, and since Persona 4 is one of those games I keep attempting and never seem to beat, there’s more that even I don’t know about.  Still, it’s the best way to do interactions with the various characters in the games.  It needs to be a direct integration, both with gameplay and the actual story.  If the player misses out, it’s their fault for not being friends with the other people.

The Proper Use of Expanded Universes

I touched a bit on this in my Gears of War 3 review last night, but one thing I’m getting pretty sick of is an overuse and misuse of expanded universe references in video games.  While it’s well and good for video games to develop beyond the game disc and branch out across multiple mediums, especially in particularly rich settings like Mass Effect or Warcraft, there’s been a trend that tie-in books and comics are becoming less and less about expanding the world a little bit and are becoming more like required reading.

Expanded Universes, by definition, are designed to expand upon the original story.  Ideally, they’re supposed to add something that the original work didn’t really get a chance to cover, like Han Solo dropping his cargo or David Anderson’s term as a Spectre.  Maybe it’ll go in depth on a side character or fill in gaps the audience didn’t even know was there in the first place.  That’s cool.  These may not be literary masterpieces, but the idea of going in and expanding on a cool world to give more to the readers is nice, and the best part is, they’re completely optional.  If someone doesn’t really want the specifics on something and would like to leave it up to their imagination, it’s not going to affect their enjoyment of the original work.

Lately though, it’s starting to get out of hand.  Gears of War 3 introduced at least three new characters with previous relationships with the characters the player is already familiar with.  Unlike in the original work where the relationships and situations are eventually explained somehow (either directly or through implication), a lot of these characters were just dropped in like the player had come in after missing the first 20 minutes.  For instance, there’s a character named Sam who has never appeared in any of the games and doesn’t get along with Baird, a guy introduced pretty much in the second level of the first game.  It’s never explained why they hate each other, nor is anything really implied about their relationship.  There’s a new girl, she doesn’t get along with a guy in the group and it’s never explained why.  The character was apparently introduced in one of the Gears of War books by Karen Traviss (who also wrote Gears of War 3), and while I’m sure Traviss’ novel certainly has literary merit, it shouldn’t be required reading for me to get a handle on who this new person is in the game.

Pictured: A literary masterpiece

Compare this to Mass Effect, which has several comic book mini series collections, a handful of comic books and a cell phone game, all of which go out to explain something in the game (Anderson’s time as a Spectre, the Illusive Man’s possible origin and how Jacob got recruited into Cerberus), but none of them get in the way of the story.  Anderson mentions his past with Saren a little bit, but doesn’t go into too much detail and the Illusive Man’s origin is neat and all, but overall, it’s of no real consequence to the overall story. It’s there, it’s cool and it doesn’t intrude on the original work.

The problem with the way games like Gears of War are introducing these Expanded Universe elements is that to a lot of players, this stuff may not have happened at all.  To this section of the audience, apparently some cool stuff happened off screen and they never get to find out about it.  It’s like Aggra’s sudden appearance in World of Warcraft when the player is going into Deepholm (or if they roll a Goblin).  She’s apparently Thrall’s girlfriend (wait, what happened to Jaina?) and she did technically appear during the Elemental Invasion event before her “real” appearance in the book the Shattering, but most of what we find out about her and how she got into this relationship with a guy who’s pretty much the main character of World of Warcraft is detailed only in this book.   Suddenly, a girlfriend appears, they’re in love and then they get married (at least Jaina got invited to the wedding).  There’s some development for this somewhere, but most players are getting left in the lurch.

Subtitle: Shit that happened off screen durinng patches

The audience shouldn’t have to be doing extra homework just to keep up with a narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with expanding out from the original work, filing in blanks or something like that is well and good.  However, it’s problematic when doing so is leaving part of the audience out of the loop.  In jokes, winks to more dedicated fans or some references are great, but introducing plot points whole hog in an expanded universe and only half explaining (if at all!) what they mean is just lazy.  At least take some time to get some exposition out of the way for the people who didn’t check out the extra stuff.

Twelve Point Font Please

This is going to be kind of a short one today.  Things are a little crazy for me in my professional life (classes are starting and I’ve had meetings all week), so I’ve been having difficulty getting things written.  Plus, with summer finally ending, I’m having a hard time wanting to write when I can watch all the anime I can before it’s time to teach some kids.

Today, Bioware linked a lot of cool screenshots.  To be fair, a whole bunch of them seem to be taken from the last couple of trailers, so there’s very little new here outside of the new class powers for Liara, Garus and Sentinel Shepard.  What I did notice though is that the font is much larger.  It looks like it might actually be readable for a change.

Holy crap, it's actually readable!

Look at that!  As I’m writing this, I’ve got a super scrunched up version of it and I can still read it.  Mostly because the font isn’t so friggin’ tiny.  This has been something of a pet peeve of mine for the past couple of years.  I don’t have a big HD screen, so, I know I’m not going to get the full graphical force of the game, but by god, this tiny font crap really needs to stop.  Even on an actual big screen television or a computer screen, I have a really hard time reading some of these fonts.  Mass Effect is a little better about it thanks to the lighter colors in the background, but I started playing Dragon Age II and I can’t see a damnable thing thanks to the black background.

Look, the tiny font can hide the subtitles a little bit when they’d otherwise obstruct the cinematography, but when it starts to obscure the actual gameplay, it starts to become a problem.  I think it’s good that Bioware is finally starting to figure out that a bigger font isn’t a bad thing all the time.  It’s good to be able to actually know how many resources I actually have.

Of course, they could still do a little better.