Kotaku’s “Unsung Story” Article Isn’t Really About Unsung Story

Four days ago, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier published a story titled “Unsung Story Is A $660,000 Kickstarter Disaster.” It’s a peculiar thing; the body mostly consists of Schreier venting his displeasure with said Kickstarter in a very feelings-based, op-ed style, despite the story being filed in the same place as Kotaku’s more regular journalism. What evidence he does lay out is lackluster, and seems to spring from fundamental misreadings of the Kickstarter campaign and its updates; and his conclusion about necessary refunds seems to emerge from a fundamental misunderstanding of what crowdfunding is. It is, in short, not really about Unsung Story, or developer Playdek; it is about the continued ambiguity in the relationship between backers and developers.

Writers wield power relative to the size of their audience, and for better or worse Kotaku is one of the most-read gaming publications. With great power comes (wait for it) great responsibility; in this case, Schreier has directed significant negative coverage towards the Unsung Story developer, Playdek, and the game itself.

There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Journalism, by its nature, cannot and should not attempt to please all parties. But it does serve a cause, a hope that ‘the truth shall set us free’ or at the very least do a greater good than the damage caused by negative coverage. It has to; otherwise, the negative coverage cannot be justified.

In the critique linked below , I hope I make it clear that the justification in this article is not present. This is not to say that Playdek is innocent of any wrongdoing, or that the campaign is above criticism (I have a few choice beefs with how things have been run); just that this article chooses poorly-considered attacks in place of more readily substantiated criticism.

I’m using this opportunity to test out News Genius, a web tool that allows direct annotations on web pages for close reading; you can find my annotated response and critique of the Kotaku article below:


Video Games in One Sentence, 2014 Ed.

Continuing a tradition from the last two years, I’m devoting a sentence to every game I began playing in 2014. Consider this a small apology for not writing substantive entries on any of them save Mass Effect 3. More in 2015 (I promise).

Also, if you haven’t already, please consider buying my book (and seven better ones) in Video Game Storybundle V!

Anyway, to our main attraction:


Absolutely fails to justify the creator’s decision to make a video game rather than a short film.

Always Sometimes Monsters
Tries to spice up its slice-of-life drama with increasingly dramatic scenarios, but these only distract from what makes it distinctive.

My favorite Twine game so far, and a good argument for soundtracks in interactive fiction.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations*
The most hateful, unnecessary standalone expansion I have ever played.

Assassin’s Creed III*
Inconsistent but earnest attempts to complicate the American narrative of the Revolutionary War are the most interesting thing going on here, but the Templar/Assassins nonsense that is the series’ albatross weighs even that down.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag*
Introduces a lovely core loop in the form of naval combat, then sets 70% of the main game on land doing the exact same things you’ve been doing for the last five Assassin’s Creed games.

The Banner Saga*
A haunting, powerful tale of survival whose apparent failures are a very intentional and necessary part of the design.

Bionic Dues
Takes the basic combat/exploration of the roguelike and layers on goofball humor and an unusual dynamic campaign structure.

Blackwell Unbound*
This follow-up to the rather staid Blackwell Legacy is more grounded and has a compelling lead, though still feels amateurish relative to many other adventure games.

The Blackwell Convergence*

Trades the grounding of Blackwell Unbound for a deep dive into the metaphysical, though its interest in NYC history is charming.

The Blackwell Deception*

Like a season of a TV show that isn’t actually better than the last but is more enjoyable because of a comfortable familiarity.

Boom Blox*

Most famous for having its notes cribbed by Angry Birds, it’s also one of the few games that feel truly at home with the Wii’s motion controls.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

While radical for a JRPG, this dungeon-delver’s careless storytelling and hardware-constrained room sizes make it hard to return to.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons*

Easily the best use of bloom lighting in a video game, though the storytelling is obnoxious in how desperately it wants to make you cry.

Card Hunter: Attack of the Artifacts

The brutal difficulty of some of the later levels demonstrates that Card Hunter really is the anti-Hearthstone.

Costume Quest 2*

This lovely follow-up reduces the grind while keeping the simplicity that makes this one of the few good RPGs for children.

A Dark Room*

I wiped my browser cookies and lost my save progress >: (

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

Infamous for its unforgiving nature, Dark Souls really should be remembered for level design that meshes perfectly with its fiction (in other words, the world-building is in the world building).

Dice Wars*

One of the best time-killing, ultra-light strategy games on the web.

Dog of Dracula 2*

The One True Sequel to Dog of Dracula feels rushed, but is still chock full of quotable sentences.

Don’t Starve

Wiping the player’s base and constructions after death is far too unforgiving for my tastes (and free time).

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Distinct Capcom RPG features excellent character customization and the most kinetic combat this side of Dark Souls, but ultimately tries to correct for its low inherent difficulty by giving enemies enormous health bars.

Draw a Stickman: Epic

I remember that there were stick figures and puzzles.

Dreamfall: Chapters

The first episode features storyteling as good as anyone could hope, but the “X Will Remember” prompts lifted from The Walking Dead give the experience of being forced to play with the commentary mode on.

Dungeon Dashers*

Even in alpha, this is probably the best tile-based RPG combat ever made.


Strips exploration down to its basics, leaving an experience as meditative as Proteus but many times larger.


More games should open in libraries.

Endless Express*

The first game since Shenmue to recognize that there is a pleasure in waiting.

Endless Ocean: Blue World*

In a just world, this would have been the best-selling third-party title on the Wii.

Europa Universalis IV

I admit: the tutorials scared me and I never returned.

Exoptable Money

From the Candy Box school of game design comes this dark tale of infinite cash.

Fallen London*

Doesn’t really transcend the limited browser “gameplay” of its peers, but it certainly has an excellent sense of style.

Goat Simulator*

Those who dismiss this as a silly joke reveal themselves as hateful people who don’t like silly jokes.

Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramus*

The best writing in a Blizzard game since Diablo (a low bar, admittedly, but dem is good puns).

Heavenly Sword*

A finally wrought but largely traditional hack-and-slash that couldn’t hold my attention in this age of radical new gaming experiences.


Hexcells is to Minesweeper as Diplomacy is to Risk.

Hexcells Plus*

Amps up the difficulty above its predecessor, but gives you all the skills you need to suceed.

Hexcells Infinite*

Released alone, I would have bounced off of this as impossible; having beaten two Hexcells game, I finished it with aplomb.

The Illogical Journey of the Zambonis (Full Version)*

The best edutainment parody since Frog Fractions.

I Love You*

I don’t really remember this game, which is a lesson that I should really write these summaries throughout the year rather than at the end.


A cornucopia of jokes about analog technology (i.e. you should buy it).


Myst without the bullshit.

Kentucky Route Zero (Episode 3)*

It’s surprising how much this relies on The Entertainment to flesh out its story.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn*

One of the cutest games ever made, and the rare game I’d strongly recommend for children.

Knights of Pen and Paper: +1 Edition

Strip away the charming D&D aesthetic and it’s just a grindfest.

Little King’s Story

A surprisingly dark tale of naive imperialism, it’s also the first original title to follow in Pikmin’s footsteps.

Long Live the Queen

About as good as trial-and-error gameplay gets, but the win conditions are far too narrow.


The Civilization of score-attack shooters.

Mahjong Titans*

I have played this game a lot this year :(

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance*

Revengeance’s tutorial is other games’ grand finale.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes*

One of the most engaging (paid) demos in recent memory, though we’re still waiting for the payoff on Kojima’s casting of Kiefer Sutherland.

Metro: Last Light*

A fine shooter, but the increased polish ends up removing the freedom and roughness that made Metro 2033 special.

Monster Loves You*

I love you too monster! <3


I have never had such a sudden shift from “Oh they this is pretty good!” to “wow this is just like every other MMORPG.”


“Eaten by the pink worm of victory” should become a widespread idiom.

One Finger Death Punch

The best two-button fighting game since Divekick.

Pool Nation

I’m almost as bad at virtual pool as I am at actual pool.

Retro City Rampage

I suffered reference overdose.


Convinced me that we need more games with FMV cutscenes.

Saints Row IV*

You can’t make a caffeine pill better by increasing the density of caffeine, because it’s already 100%.

Shadow Warrior

Just because I was capable of playing this surprisingly good retro shooter on a high difficulty doesn’t mean it was a good idea.


Makes me upset there are no badgers where I live.

Shogo: Mobile Armored Division*

At least 50% of the DNA of No One Lives Forever can be found in this hyperkinetic ode to bad anime.


The best thing to happen to local multiplayer since, well, Niddhog.

Star Realms*

The year’s best deckbuilding card game, physically and digitally.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity*

Possibly the most expansive point-and-click adventure games ever made, A Final Unity comprises the equivalent of several TNG episodes and features 8 playable characters, multiple puzzle solutions, and a ludicrously detailed starship combat simulator.

Star Wars: Tie Fighter Collector’s CD-ROM

When everyone agrees that this is the best Star Wars game ever made, you probably should make more, yes?

Steamworld Dig*

You can tell it was designed for portables, but sometimes you just want a simple digging game, you know?

The Sun Does Not Exist*

Features the year’s best sight gag.

Superhot (2013)*

So good, I backed the kickstarter!

Tales of Maj’Eyal

In an alternate universe in which I played only a few games deeply, Maj’Eyal would be a strong contender for my time.

Talisman: Prologue

Single-player Talisman is one of the stupidest concepts in video game history, but I bought it, so who’s to blame?

The Temple of Elemental Evil

By far the best implementation of D&D combat ever seen in a computer game.


Beautiful, intelligent, charming, and yet somehow slight, an apparent symptom of a very small team trying to make a complex, detailed world.

Two Brothers

Copious bugs don’t change the fact that this is the best (and possibly only) Gameboy-style action-adventure for sale.


A step in the right direction for edutainment, though it would be nice if we could figure out a better way than text dumps for presenting the historical context.

Typing of the Dead: Overkill

Typing of the Dead remains a brilliant concept, but the game’s now in on the joke, and that sort of kills it.

Wasteland 2*

An absolutely fantastic successor to Wasteland that sadly collapses in the final act, something that will be hopefully be fixed in post-release support.

Wii Sports Resort

Flying around the resort in an airplane is one of my fondest gaming memories of 2014.

Xenoblade Chronicles*

Having spent over 100 hours in this single-player MMO, I can reliably state that it is not the second coming of the JRPG.

The Yawhg*

Demonstrates that you *can* make storytelling the center of a local multiplayer game, if you have a truly masterful control of tone.

The End of Mass Effect

This is the fourth and final part of Critical Mass Effect, a close look at the Mass Effect series. Previous entries are:

This final entry looks at Mass Effect 3, and contains spoilers for that game.

If you could sum up all of Mass Effect 3 in one word, it would be “inevitable.” Its creation, the final part of a planned trilogy whose first two parts were best-sellers, was as sure a thing as you can find in game development. The design, too, feels inevitable. Bioware made some significant course changes from Mass Effect to its sequel.The changes stuck, and as a result Mass Effect 3 plays almost identically to its predecessor; a few tweaks to the combat engine aside, the only real change is an increased narrative focus. Mass Effect 2 got to dick around on character study as the middle game in the series, but Mass Effect 3 has to – as the tagline goes – “finish the fight.”

Of course, the ultimate aspect of that finish was a widely unpopular ending that caused an internet firestorm and overwhelmed coverage of the game proper. I have no interest in repeating that, so I’ll be focusing on the first 97% of the game, as well as a few thoughts on the series as a whole.

Third Time’s a Charm

There is something to be said for mythos. Over the course of the two previous games, Bioware had built up a sizable universe with a significant number of named characters, and Mass Effect 3 uses this to the fullest. It’s easy to dismiss this as fan service, but there is a genuine pleasure in recurrence, in seeing old faces in new situations. This is at least half the reason we watch television. The few times I experienced genuine delight in my playthrough, it was due to the return of favorite characters, and Bioware handles them more deftly than it could have; letting more minor characters make appropriate but not overextended cameos, giving better-developed characters a real moment to shine in the conclusion of the story. The downside is that, given the game’s general doom-and-gloom thrust, it develops a habit of having Important Character make the Ultimate Sacrifice for the Greater Good, and then give a little “the lights are going dim” speech before Shepard talks about how “we have to make sure their death wasn’t in vain,” as if preventing the extinction of all life in the galaxy wasn’t enough motivation.

There are people who think there are better characters in the series than Mordin Solus. Those people are wrong.The combat also makes a comfortable return, and contains the best idea the series has had to date. Much has been made about the degree to which Mass Effect 2 moved away from the trappings of the RPG, but it still stuck with character classes and the play restrictions they represented; the player has to make an uninformed choice at the beginning of the game and have it mandate what they can and cannot do for the rest of the running time.

This is significantly curbed in Mass Effect 3 by allowing Shepard to carry each of the five weapon types, and assigning each weapon a weight. The more weight Shepard carries, the slower the recharge is on her biotic powers. For the first time, the player has to make legitimately difficult decisions as to how they balance their biotic and weapon use. Just as importantly, this can be changed mission to mission, so the otherwise repetitive combat doesn’t grow stale; I used a different weapon loadout every time, and was able to cycle between heavy biotics usage and playing a walking arsenal. The new ability to mod your weapons (ending Mass Effect’s run as the last western RPG without crafting) gives further breadth to the combat. The core engine is fundamentally the same as it was in Mass Effect 2 – but the core loop was already good then, and it only lacked enough things to do with it. The highest compliment I can pay to Mass Effect 3 is that I was not once bored with the combat (and there’s a lot of it).

"Dude! My gun's called the EVISCERATOR!"

The Problem with War Games

The other big change in Mass Effect 3 is the framing. You spent most of the first game trying to stop a Bad Dude doing Bad Stuff; at the end, it turns out there’s an existential threat to all sentient life in the universe. Poop.

But as previously discussed, Mass Effect 2 bizarrely kicked that can down the road. So here we are: interstellar war of the sort rarely seen even in the hyperbolic narratives of video games.

Very early on, there’s a pleasure in this. The microgenre of Guns & Conversation keeps the action limited even when the stakes are high. Mass Effect 3 starts with the total decimation of earth, and promises it will pick up from there. After spending all of last game playing therapist to the galaxy’s greatest killers and fighting some bagmen, this is exactly what any Mass Effect fan would be eager for.

This makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn’t work. Remembering what I said about inevitability? The series was always going to end here, with this setup, all life vs. the Reapers. Which makes it downright odd that the engine and systems created by Bioware don’t really support this.

Mass Effect is a game of small-scale team combat; three individuals vs five to ten enemies at a time. When the game wants to draw things out, it just throws more waves of enemies at you. But the design is incapable of portraying anything resembling an actual battle; this isn’t Total War, this is Rainbow Six.

As a result, the game is filled with talking heads who Skype in to tell you how many billions of people have died, but you never experience it. The war is ultimately just a dressing, and not even a particularly affecting one; the numbers at play here are so enormous that I couldn’t really conceive of the scale of destruction. You could argue that this is intentional, but “galaxy-wide warfare isn’t something we can really comprehend” doesn’t seem like a point worth making.

This is made worse by the fact that, a couple of boss battles aside, you never actually fight the Reapers. Bioware wrote themselves into a hole when they cast them as enormous spacefaring robot squid. They weren’t about to make Mass Effect 3 a space sim, so instead we spend half the game fighting various Reaper peons, and half of it shooting up your fellow humans in the form of Cerberus.

Bioware tried to layer on a war metagame to make it not totally absent, but their hands are already tied. If they had introduced any complexity, they would have asked people to employ the sort of turn-based strategy skills the series had never asked of them; it wouldn’t be far to those who had come this far. But the result was that it’s so ludicrously simple – complete a sidequest, play a multiplayer mission, or click a button on your smartphone to make the Galactic Readiness Number bigger – that it’s both dull and immersion-breaking.

Erasing the Grey

Bioware made a very intentional, public decision to make Mass Effect 2 grimdark, and to force Shepard to work with unsavory, conflicted characters, rather than the typical assortment of do-gooders. It didn’t end up doing as much with this setup as it could have, but it did give us an interesting character in the Illusive Man, a racist nationalist who nevertheless may be key to saving the galaxy. He does a lot of good things for the wrong reasons (and also awful things).

He doesn't even use hair gel anymore. It's just calified that way.So my heart sunk when I learned that Mass Effect 3’s first post-prologue piece of business was to completely eradicate that grey. The Illusive Man is without warning or explanation transformed from a (more or less) pragmatic racist into a cardboard cutout megalomaniacal psycho, who loudly proclaims that Shepard should stop fighting the reapers because dumb reason. It borders on retcon; Bioware wanted you to see good in Cerberus so you’d be willing to work with them, but Mass Effect 3 is done with them, so now they are Super Bad Guys. I almost suspect that this was out of the realization that they couldn’t make an entire game out of shooting husks, and needed some solid human enemies.

This avoidance of hard questions also manifests in the game’s portrayal of war. This is not rooted in the conflicted, documentary style of fare like Generation Kill; like almost all war video games, this resembles a 40s/50s era Hollywood WW II movie, all bluster and sacrifice to save the world. War is uncomfortable, and to make it fun we have to make the bad guys as bad as they can possibly be, so we have no doubts that shooting them is the right thing to do.

Even at their worst, the first two Mass Effects more or less earn their self-seriousness with narrative contiguity; character motivations, if not complex, are at least present in a clear cause-and-effect relationship. The Illusive Man’s turn is bonkers, and sets the tone of the game. You are with the Reapers or you are against them; the former are obviously villainous, and the latter have all sins washed away due to the necessity of their help.

Be All You Can Be

And yet despite these and many other criticisms of Mass Effect 3, I think it embodies the series’ ideals more than its predecessors. By this I don’t mean whatever stated ideals the developers have put forth, but the thrust of the series itself. You can tell what a work values by what it focuses on, what aspects show a lot of thought and what seem hastily thrown together.

Bioware is a company that came to fame adapting AD&D 2nd Edition into real-time, and has spent the rest of their history moving away from it; they want to take the nerd out of role-playing games. Every new game further obfuscates the die rolls, simplifies character classes, and strips out the more arcane aspects of the RPG in the interest of simplicity. Whether this is viewed as “accessible” or “dumbed down” is a matter of perspective, but it’s clearly where the studio’s heart lies, and Mass Effect 3 seems to be the purest distillation of this form.

"Bear with it. It's a stupid game."When Rock, Paper, Shotgun coined “guns and conversation,” it was a little jokey. But by its third incarnation, that’s really all the series cares about. For the final incarnation, Mass Effect created two new play modes to counterbalance the standard RPG mode. “Action Mode” turned all conversations into cutscenes, with automatic replies. “Story Mode” strips the combat difficulty to a minimum and shifts the focus to the conversations. It’s telling that these are the only parameters affected by the choice of modes. Systemically, the game is competent or better at having conversations and playing with guns; it does what it sets out to do, even if I think the narrative decisions largely undercut the result.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Once Bioware was purchased by EA, it was inevitable that Mass Effect games would continue to be made until they stopped selling. Mass Effect 3 completes the series’ story and takes the design to its obvious conclusion; it is not at all clear to me what Bioware will do with Mass Effect 4+, but I doubt it will be very interesting.

Yet I think there’s a lot to take away from the series. I’ve certainly found this deep delve rewarding (and if nothing else, I’ve finally been able to articulate my beef with Bioware’s design), but I also find it slightly bizarre that Mass Effect‘s design has been so siloed. The obvious answer is that this is a symptom of the western AAA RPG industry more or less collapsing during the rise of consoles, to the point where Bethesda and Bioware are the only big-name developers of single-player RPGs outside of Japan.

But I have no desire to see more RPGs like Mass Effect. Role-playing is not what these games are good at. It’s shooting. So instead of looking at Mass Effect as an RPG series that rapidly shed its core elements, why don’t we treat it as a shooter series that eventually found its way, and think of all the things we could do with this structure?

Take, for instance, a new Jagged Alliance game. You recruit a squad of mercenaries, and select missions on a map, just as you would do in a Bioware game – but with more choices and options. You could have a non-linear campaign weaved with narrative elements, like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Your teammates could develop and gain new abilities and weapon proficiencies, and die off when a mission went bad. The tactical layer and the investments in your teammates could breathe new life into a genre that’s increasingly devolved into a cover-strewn shooting gallery, and the more grounded, combat-oriented approach could avoid a lot of the self-satisfied grandiosity of Bioware’s space opera.

Ultimately, I feel that Mass Effect was a game as ambitious as it was flawed, and Bioware largely dealt with these flaws by scaling back the ambition and making something safe, something that fit snugly in the space that typified AAA action games on the seventh generation of consoles. It enriched a lot of people, and I was not one of them. But I still believe in its core values; that repetitive violence and strong characters can exist in the same game, that creating immersive spaces increasingly requires the breaking of traditional genre boundaries, and that space opera still matters. Mass Effect, as a series, is both lengthy and rich enough to be an excellent object lesson for anyone looking to build a game out of the same core, and I hope that a team of game developers will have the gumption to say “I can do better” and the talent to actually do so.

The Year of Lagging Dangerously

I made two New Years Resolutions for 2014:

1. Update this blog at least once a month.
2. Do not purchase any video games for the first half of the year (excluding games where at least 30% of proceeds goes to charity, e.g. Humble Bundles).

The first is the sort of resolution every lazy writer makes. The second is unusual, and I think it’s worth explaining the thought behind it, both as a player and as a critic.

The Rise of Backlogs

In December of 2009, Valve Software shook the foundations of the PC gaming industry by having an unprecedented Christmas sale. Hundreds of titles, many of them new, saw their prices slashed by 25-75%. Never before had so many games been available so cheaply. This was the latest in a series of pricing experiments by Valve; the theory was that they’d sell so many copies that it would more than make up for the reduced profit margins, all while tying an increasing number of users to their lucrative platform.

Valve clearly liked the results: the next year, they had two ginormous sales, and the number has only increased since then. Other online retailers were forced to compete and slashed prices appropriately. The end result is that a given PC game can be expected to be had cheaply within 6 months of release, max.

I can’t imagine most retailers (or publishers) were thrilled about this downwards price pressure, but it was going to get worse before it got better. In 2009, shortly before the first Steam Winter Sale, developer 2D Boy celebrated the one-year anniversary of World of Goo via a “pay-what-you-want” sale. World of Goo was the first well-known title to be sold at this non-existent price point, and the results spoke for themselves; they moved a considerable amount of volume for a year-old indie game, and most people chose to pay actual money despite the ability to get it for only a penny.

In 2010 – the year the Steam Sales really stared to roll out – Wolfire Games launched the Humble Indie Bundle, a collection of indie games collectively available for 1 cent or more (with bonus games for those beating a set minimum of a few dollars). The Humble Bundle took off, and a number of copycats – notably Indie Gala and Indie Royale – showed up to create a cottage industry around selling digital games in bulk.

In some sort of super-rationalistic universe, people would have responded by buying only the games they had time for, and saved a lot of money in the process. But that’s not how consumer psychology works; the time-limited nature of Steam Sales and specific bundles meant we rushed to stock up before these incredibly low prices (which most people, myself included, couldn’t quite believe were real) went away. The short term result, as far as I can tell, is most people spending about the same amount of money they always did, and exponentially more owned games than at any time prior.

By 2013, I’d stopped spending significant cash on Steam sales, but the bundle train rolled forward, and by the end of the year, I owned about 300 games I had never played (about 100 of which I actually want to) and an additional 40 games I had started and intended to finish.


Social Gaming

This raises an obvious question: what sane person would buy new games when they already own over a hundred they want to play? I don’t go to the grocery store when I have a dozen refrigerators stocked with food.

I think there are two reasons why people in my position (and there are a lot of us) continue to buy games:

A. Because the new game is something radical and fills a niche that your current collection doesn’t;

B. To participate in the social culture of video games, which is almost always fixated on the latest releases.

Both of these are real reasons, but the first is the exception to the rule. Even with the massive explosion of left-field games we’ve seen in recent years, the number that are totally dissimilar from anything else is pretty small, and the vast majority of the time I purchase a game under this assumption, it doesn’t pan out. We get caught up in the hype cycle, and video games – more than any other cultural product – are marketed on novelty. “Innovative” is one of the most-used words in game ad copy. But like everything else in life, iteration is the norm, revolution the rare exception.

So – if we somehow manage to step outside the hype cycle – it really comes down to the social experience, to participating in the culture of video game fandom.

Not much of a revelation, I know. Of course it’s social. We’re social creatures. But despite this being an obvious truth the moment you frame things this formally, I rarely *think* of video games in these terms. I tell myself I am interacting with the video game as an artifact, and comparing it only to other artifacts and (perhaps) my personal life experiences. I get off on clinical analysis, and at the end of the day, I think there’s some real value in it. But it’s difficult when you’re thinking about you view a game you’re playing through the lens of “What am I going to say about it on Twitter?”

We often talk about how games age, and their reception now relative to when they were released. And I think the differences that manifest are mainly due to removing the game from a busy conversation. Once people stop talking about it, once opinions on it are no longer phrased as part of a social dance where we are responding to other people’s views of the game as much or more than the game itself, we can view the game as part of a broader historical framework.

I say this not to denigrate a social exploration of games (that’s, like, half my Facebook posts!) but to note that that it’s a continuum, and what you gain on one end you lose on the other. And – as noted previously – the overwhelming majority of game writing exists within the short-term, social conversation of games rather than the broader historical analysis. So because I like nothing more than an unfilled niche, that’s what I like to focus on.

But I’m far from immune to the social pressure to participate in the latest conversations. Single-player gaming is an inherently lonely activity, and participating in the discourse about these games is a way to counteract that loneliness. As a result, I spend the vast majority of my time on games released in the last few years, and considerably less on decades-old classics.

The Experiment

The result is that picking which game to play next ends up being a painful process of self-interrogation. How much will this game expand my knowledge of the medium? Will I be able to write something about it? Is it contemporary enough that anyone cares? Am I properly balancing my focus on the historical with engaging with my peers?

If that sounds neurotic, it absolutely is. Picking a game on a whim – because it seems nifty, sounds fun, is just my idea of a good time – doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

So here I am in 2014. I have more games than God, and yet keep buying things to participate in this conversation, which often feels like it’s more trouble than its worth.

The solution is simple: I cut myself off. This isn’t a sacrifice. I’m pretty sure I could entertain myself for years to come on the games in my backlog. And for the first time since the advent of social media, I can play “unimportant” games without guilt or feeling like I’m missing the next big thing. I can try to tackle them as artifacts, to give them space to be what they want to be, to engage with them on my own terms.

So that’s the plan. It’s too early to say yet whether I’ll reap all the benefits I hoped, and I’ve already felt the pain is ignored releases (Jazzpunk!). But it’s definitely happening, and in July, I’ll tell you how it went.

Video Games in One Sentence, 2013 Ed.

Last year, I wrote a one-sentence description of every game I played in 2012. I’m making this an annual tradition, so let the run-on sentences commence! Because throwing glowing adjectives in a sentence gets tiresome quickly, this is not intended to be fair in any way shape or form; some of these are serious commentary, some are larks, and none represent my full views on the game.

For transparency, games I actually *finished* have an asterisk after them.

Diegetic menus should be done more often.

Bioshock: Infinite*
The massive critical backlash is explained by the fact that it’s extraordinarily clever without being particularly smart.

Book of Unwritten Tales*
Most of its comedy fell flat for me, but this German adventure has a fullness to it that I haven’t seen since The Longest Journey.

Borderlands 2*
Come for the humor, leave because the gunplay feels like it was lifted from the first Planetside.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger*
The rare case of meta self-referentiality succeeding as the core of a game narrative (and a budget shooter at that).

Card Hunter*
Notable as much for its accessibility as its charm, Card Hunter is the best example of how free-to-play can be great for players as well as (or perhaps instead of) developers.

Civilization V: Brave New World*
The most satisfying Civilization endgame yet, but its best feature shines in multiplayer, which you will probably never play.

Dark Scavenger*
Relies on the player making a series of uninformed decisions, which is totally okay because it’s a choice between “awesome, super, and fantastic.”

Defender’s Quest
The developers have made a big deal about creating a tower defense narrative with no ludonarrative dissonance; unfortunately, this required making the plot generic and otherwise not worthy of note.

PC Local Multiplayer Game of the Year, especially for those of us who bounce off “real” fighting games.

A throwback to the simplicity of early Ultimas and Dink Smallwood, this charming Finnish RPG has amateur written all over it, but it’s an amateurism you want to help flourish.

Dungeon Siege 3
This Obsidian title breaks from the rest of their catalog by being completely bug-free, and by achieving an almost platonic ideal of boring.

The Entertainment*
Like ReccetearThe Entertainment casts the player as a background NPC, a conceit that should spawn a thousand video games (but probably won’t).

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
The best example of a bad genre, FF XIV is probably the peak of the Everquest/WOW clone, and will hopefully remain unchallenged as the MMO branches out after a decade of fatalistic conservatism.

Game of Thrones*
Manages to embody both the strengths and weaknesses of its source material, which is the best you can ask of a licensed game.

Gone Home*
A charming mystery-house exploration sim, Gone Home will please if you aren’t expecting anything revolutionary, but may well disappoint if you are.

What do you call a puzzle platformer without the platforming?

John Walker is very, very adamant that this is nothing like Minesweeper, because Minesweeper requires guessing and this doesn’t.

12 years after release, ICO‘s puzzles and combat taste a little gamey, but the atmosphere is as distinct and haunting as it ever was.

I Get This Call Every Day*
Succeeds in making you feel grateful you don’t work phone support (in case you do, in which case, I’m sorry).

Ironclad Tactics
While distinct from previous Zach Barth games, this alternate-Civil-War CCG/MOBA mash-up shares their tight puzzle design and brutal difficulty.

Ittle Dew*
Left me with a strong belief that 3-5 hours is the best length for a Zelda clone.

Every ounce as good as the press said it was, though I think people tend to undersell how key the multiplayer is.

Kentucky Route Zero*
With only two of five episodes released, the magically realist Kentucky Route Zero is already the most radical thing to happen to adventure games since Lucasarts came up with the idea of invincible protagonists.

The Last of Us*
Playing The Last of Us was like watching a thoughtful lecture by an intelligent professor while someone drew their nails across the chalkboard.

Leviathan: Warships
More games should have boats.

Limits and Demonstrations*
Like Kentucy Route Zero itself, Limits and Demonstrations is a…demonstration of why we should not use the word “pretentious” as a pejorative.

Lord of the Rings Online
More games should have horses (unlike boats, the industry is proving responsive to this).

Max Payne 3*
Further demonstration that almost nobody understands that the original Max Payne was a pastiche, and that playing it straight completely subverts the purpose.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD*
The first Kojima-helmed, canonical MGS entry that feels entirely unnecessary, Peace Walker’s highlight is featuring some of the best CODEC comedy in the series.

Killing a friend’s cat produced the greatest guilt I have ever felt in a video game.

Like MagickaMonaco is most fun when everything is going wrong.

Nethergate: Resurrection
An overly simplistic combat system hurts it, but you can bet it’s a far better Roman Game than this year’s Ryse.

Organ Trail
Its conceit is as well executed as it could be, but it mostly just made me want to play Oregon Trail II.

Papers, Please
Formally perfect.

Planetside 2
The decision to focus on balance, fix bad game designs, and optimize performance means little new happened with Planetside 2 in its first full year, but if it doesn’t go bankrupt is has a bright future on the PC and PS4.

Accessible game design incarnate.

Race the Sun
A really good endless runner that reinforces that I don’t much like endless runners.

Radiant Historia
Like so many JRPGs, it has a single distinct conceit (jumping around the timeline to fix mistakes) but is otherwise generic, embodying a conservatism that is the rotten core at he heart of the genre.

I can’t remember the last shooter I played that was this forgettable.

A brilliant critique of gun porn, though I’m not sure that critique is entirely intentional.

Switching between four dull protagonists does not make a dull game less dull.

Beautiful spreadsheet.

Rogue Legacy
Uncomfortably close to a Skinner box.

Room of 1000 Snakes*
Best Use Of Licensed Music In a Video Game (where the music was certainly not licensed).

Scribblenauts Unlimited
Even more so than the previous games, your enjoyment of Scribblenauts Unlimited is determined entirely by your capacity for nonlinear thinking and imagination.

Shadowrun Returns*
An earnest endeavor kept from a greatness by a fundamental conservatism and some really bad design decisions around the modding engine.

Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol*
Apparently, you CAN make a turn-based strategy game optimized for touch – at the expense of PC players.

The obvious clusterfuck of design and PR overshadows the fact that this game has an amazing FEEL, and could be modded into something amazing – if only EA allowed legitimate modding.

Skulls of the Shogun*
In my dream universe, this game is a gateway drug to all turn-based strategy/wargames.

Sleeping Dogs
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but Sleeping Dogs is earnest in a way no GTA game since the first has been.

Sonic & All Star Racing Transformed
Probably the best kart racer ever made, though it lacks Ryo Hazuki driving a forklift.

Super Pole Riders
Every time I try to pitch this game to people, they giggle at the name like a bunch of preteens.

Space Funeral
Thecatamites’ most famous game is, surprisingly, his least humorous.

Spy Party (Alpha)
The kind of game I want to own all my coworkers in.

There’s something in the water this year that made everyone proclaim their love for Startopia, leading to Spacebase DF9, among others.

The Cave
As a co-op game, I think I’d really enjoy this; as a single-player game, you spend way too much time moving your characters separately.

Tomb Raider*
Probably as good as we could expect from a AAA reboot, Tomb Raider is a tour-de-force that struggles for a reason to exist.

Tokyo Jungle
I would love to see this design with a larger budget, but it’s probably true that I’ll never forget fleeing lions as a Pomeranian.

Total War: Shogun 2
The Sengoku Jidai period has to be one of the greatest settings for games and fiction.

War of the Human Tanks*
This tile-based wargame captures the simple pleasures of Minesweeper with a dark story about marginally self-aware war machines.

War of the Roses
I can’t go back to deathmatch.

Remarkably like Fire Emblem to a contemporary American perspective, but brought to the States a decade before that series.

World of Warplanes
An immaculate rendition of five minutes of dogfighting, but it’s the same five minutes over and over.

On Murder Simulators

“Murder simulator” has been one of the most popular rhetorical sledgehammers in the national FUD campaign against violent video games. Popularized by Dave Grossman in his 1996 book On Killing, the phrase was repeatedly used by provacateur Jack Thompson and the mainstream media when attempting to tie violent video games to real-life killings.

The term wasn’t just hyperbolic – it was actively misleading. Despite popular belief, only a small portion of violent video games focus on or reward murder. Those that do—most famously the Grand Theft Auto series—are so abstracted away from the real world that the “murder” has none of the weight or emotional resonance (not to mention legal consequences) of actual killing. In the sandbox world of GTA, killable NPCs are merely auto-generated clones without actual identities or resemblance to real people; their killing does not evoke the feeling of murder because there is no actual loss.

GTA3 Killingspree

Make no mistake: murder, as a concept, as a reality, and as an action, exists in video games. It is, in fact, one of the things that video games love to feature, because it provides justification for killing and is the easiest way to create a villain and motivate a quest for vengeance against them. But it is not available to the player. The bad guys commit murder; the player kills them to save “innocents” from further murder, in a fantasy straight out of NRA literature.

The few video games that mandate that the player commit murder build their entire concept around this. Manhunt sought to evoke grindhouse horror and challenge our complacency with killing (at least in theory); likewise, the Kane and Lynch series casts the player as homicidal sociopaths with no redeeming qualities in order to provide a narrative justifcation for the high body counts of the first-person shooter. The Hitman series lies somewhere in between these self-serious games and the weightlessness of Grand Theft Auto; at heart they are puzzle games, but they characterize the assasination targets just enough to make clear that the world would be better off without them.

Many people will find that these reasons fall short: they’re not enough to justify the inherent unpleasantness of engaging in the heinous act of murder. And, for my money, that is totally legitimate. No one is obligated to experience revulsion, or to enact a fantasy of something they would never do in real life.

The good news is that all of these games are forthcoming about their murder-centric nature; you could gather it from their marketing or, in the case of Manhunt and Hitman, the title itself. Players who choose to play them have no ground to complain about the framing, and those who don’t can forget they exist and go on with their lives unimpeded.

In all my years of playing video games, I have encountered only one exception to this rule: The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s celebrated post-apocalyptic morality tale.

To recap (and again: spoilers! Stop reading if you haven’t played the game and actually care!), The Last of Us casts the player as uber-survivor Joel, who must transport the teenage Ellie across the zombified ruins of the USA. The reason she is worth all this trouble is because Ellie has a mutation that makes her immune to the virus. The Last of Us is not a game that shies away from the obvious payoff (in this or any other plot point) and so arrives comfortably at the conclusion of this journey: Ellie’s cells can be harvested to create a vaccine, but at the cost of her life.

This leads to the inevitable choice: should Elli live at the expense of the human race?

TLOU Ending

For my money, it’s not much of a choice. Video games have a long history of championing the individual over an ends-justify-the-means utilitarian calculus, but if Joel takes action to prevent the creation of this cure, he’s basically committing genocide.

Yet no choice is given. Joel, the scripted character, decides that he is going to murder every member of the resistance movement in order to stop Ellie from willfully sacrificing herself for the sake of humanity. This is consistent with Naughty Dog’s penchant for making film-games, where spectacle and a tightly controlled dramatic arc are privileged over the player’s agency. Fair enough; I knew what I was getting into, and expected to have significant decisions made for me in cutscenes. That’s not a problem. Forcing me to carry out the murders in the game proper is.

When I realized that the only thing the game would let me do is kill, without warning or provocation, a group of young men who had dedicated their lives to bettering humanity, I forced Joel to commit suicide and turned off the game. I was filled with revulsion, and as angry as I’d ever been at a video game. Naughty Dog has asked me to buy into their world, and I had. Now they were asking me to destroy it, and I would not.

I’ve killed tens of thousands of people in video games. But in every case that asks for one, there is a justification, however flimsy. Usually, it’s as simple as them shooting first. Other times, it’s a battlefield operating under the rules of war. If nothing else, it’s Justified Murder – killing a few bad people in order to Save The World. Murder still, but not one so revolting I refuse to carry it out.

The exceptions to this rule are games that don’t take themselves, or their worlds, seriously, where the targets of killing aren’t people in any meaningful sense; they have no personality, no past, no future, no dialog, no meaningful intergration into the fictive universe; they are merely opponents, and killing one is no more evocative than taking a pawn in chess.

The consistency of this framing is genuinely remarkable, given how diverse the medium is in most other respects. The reason for this uniformity is pretty simple: even in a linear video game, the player has some degree of agency, and that creates a tension between the developer (who has a certain idea of how things should go down) and the player (who may well have a different idea). This necessitates a contract, one that is implicit in the design of almost every game:

1. The player shall give up a lot of agency in order to allow the developer to tell the story they want to tell, and sharply define the challenges the player faces;

2. The developer agrees to give the player at least some semblance of control. The developer will not make the player do anything that they absolutely don’t want to do.

This isn’t just a matter of fairness; the player has the ultimate veto power. At any time, and any moment, they can turn off the game, walk away, and never return. But at that point, the developer and the player have both wasted their time and money. Nobody wants that. Hence the contract.

Naughty Dog blows this contract out the airlock when they ask the player to murder a group of men and commit genocide in the same fell swoop. The developers seem to be relying on the fact that it is the game’s finale, and almost every player who gets that far will want to see the story through.

I’ll admit that they were right, and I completed the murder sequence, though more out of a desire to write this entry than to see what happened. The only way I could get through such a stomach-churning moment was to remind myself that it was all just a bunch of pixels, that no one was really being hurt and that my actions had no real-world consequences, at which point the story ceased to have any meaning.

There’s an argument that there are good thematic reasons for the story to end as it does; but all of these are based in a literary reading of the game, as if it were a passive narrative. But it is not a book, and it is not a film. Video game evangelists love to talk about the things games can do that no other medium can; they talk less of the things games are bad at. Having awful protagonists is one of those things. In passive media, we can look at them from a distance, maybe judging, maybe empathisizing, but ultimately taking no responsibility. In games, we are responsible for the actions of our protagonist. When the only option available to us is an action that we are not willing to own, then the only winning move is not to play.

The Evolution of Mass Effect

[SPOILER WARNING: As with all entries in the Critical Mass Effect series, this contains various degrees of spoilers, in this case for Mass Effect 2]

The unimaginatively titled Mass Effect 2 may as well have been called Mass Effect². Bioware’s approach to the sequel seems to have been to take everything that was distinct about Mass Effect and exaggerate it. Yes, there are a few U-turns here and there, but overall I think this is, for better or worse, a very natural evolution of the series.

Which wasn’t the conclusion I was expecting to reach. While receiving considerably more critical acclaim than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 alienated some fans of the original by moving away from Bioware’s boilerplate RPG rubric and expanding upon the shooter components. This is a game that sought to make the greatest weaknesses of Mass Effect its greatest strengths, and for that I respect it, even if it makes some serious stumbles along the way.

Let’s dig in.

Rebooting Shepard

In a slick prologue, the game opens by having the Commander Shepard killed, then jumps ahead two years. In a startling early appearance of a deus ex machina, the villainous Cerberus succeeds in rebuilding Shepard, and the player is back at square one.

MassEffect2 2013-05-04 20-46-47-37

Bioware has a habit of making some lazy decisions, but in an otherwise pretty accomplished game, this is by far the laziest. Mass Effect wasn’t just a new IP; it was something that Bioware pitched as a tightly-linked trilogy from the get-go. This has serious promise for a genre so focused on character development and investment, and is not unprecedented: this is the big draw of the Hero’s Quest games. But it does require additional design work, and makes it hard for new players to start the series in the middle. Like all ambitious projects, some sacrifice is necessary to pull it off.

EA & Bioware weren’t willing to make that sacrifice, so they cheated. They took the leveled-up Shepard, ambushed her in an alley, and took all her items and powers. The narrative trickery even gives them an excuse to let the player change Shepard’s appearance and class (the former has no effect, because Mass Effect is not only a post-racial universe, it’s post-ugliness).  Apart from a few starting bonuses, not a single mechanical decision you made in Mass Effect carries over. By the time the cold open ends, the game has shot itself in the foot. It’s not a fatal wound, but it stops the game from achieving its full promise.

When You Have A Checklist, Everything Looks Like A Sidequest

I criticized Matt Effect for having a fat middle, where the main plot slowed down while you went on a series of “primary sidequests.” Bioware seemingly dealt with this by making the *entire game* a fat middle.

After the game’s prologue, Shepard is told that she’ll need to go on a CRAZY SUICIDE MISSION. Having just died a couple years ago, Shepard isn’t too keen on doing it again, and recognizes that a party-based RPG needs a party, so it’s off to jet around the galaxy recruiting SPACE BADASSES FOR DA CREW. Literally 90% of your playtime is going to be running around in this frame story. It’s a stunning act of hubris…and it works.

MassEffect2 2013-04-22 18-01-30-95

I mean, it’s not my idea of the best way to spin a tale, but there was no point in going halfsies on it as Mass Effect did. It’s a blessing in disguise; Bioware is at their worst when dealing with their MacGuffin-strewn plots, and at their best when doing world-building and character interaction. More or less ignoring the existential threat to the galaxy for the bulk of the running time enables a fleshing-out of the universe that simply didn’t exist in the first game. In Mass Effect, we saw a fancy space station and a bunch of battlezones. Mass Effect 2 takes us to the Krogran homeworld, the ME version of Nar Shaddaa, and an Asari corptocracy, alongside other exotic locations. Each of these places is more interesting than the shiny, bathroomless locales of the original.

The characters are also given more attention. The framework allows each character to have more than just a special sidequest, but a whole chapter dedicated to them; this forces the writers to step up and gives us something more than the Carth/Kaiden sensitive-hunk-blueprint. Some are better than others, but all at least meet the Bioware average and a few (Legion, Zaeed, and especially Mordin) greatly exceed it.

The downside of this approach is that the plot really does suffer, and there’s no real narrative movement; the ending of Mass Effect 2 leaves the player (and the galaxy) in exactly the same place they were at at the end of the first game.

In The Grim Darkness Of The Far Future, There Are Only Mono-Gendered Aliens

Before we get into the combat, I want to take this moment to talk about the Mass Effect series’ bizarre approach to sex. I don’t mean the laughably-bad romance scenes, I mean chromosomes here. Let me present a few facts about non-humans, as seen in the first two Mass Effect games:

*Humans and Quarians have both male and female representatives.
*All Asari are female. This is discussed extensively, is part of their alienness, okay, cool. But…
*All Batarians are male.
*All Turians are male.
*All Salarians are male.
*All Volus are male.
*We don’t really have enough information to judge the Hanar and Elcor, but if we’re going by voice actors…they’re all male.


What the hell is going on here? I can’t even begin to write a critique of this because it is so beyond me. I mean, I don’t think Bioware’s writers are just misogynists; they write female characters decently, they give them some focus…as long as they are Asari, Human, or Quarian. And the lore doesn’t really address this. With Salarians, we’re told the women generally stay home (uh, okay) but with everyone else, it’s just unexplained. And if they were monosexual, you’d think they’d talk about it, as they do with the Asari.

So again, this is only a critique insofar as this design decision is jarring and confusing. Does anyone know why they did this? Genuine question.

Let’s Talk About Shooting

The combat system is the most notably revamped aspect of Mass Effect 2. A few more layers have been laid down to increase the complexity from the power-and-bullet spamfest of the original. Most notably, enemies now have three different types of protection (shields, armor, and biotic barriers) that require different counters. It’s basically a really simple version of the classic RPG “elemental weakness” system, but it works and requires some degree of active response.

MassEffect2 2013-04-28 22-31-12-77

Another significant change is in the bullets. On the player side, the infinite ammo clips of the original have been replaced with traditionally finite ammo. The Codex offers up a half-assed explanation as to why the entire galaxy abandoned infinite ammo in a two-year period, but as one might imagine, it’s pretty weak; this is an issue with significantly modifying game mechanics in the course of a single story, but one that people will generally accept, however grudgingly. This effectively forces the player to switch weapons some instead of just using sniper rifles all day long. The weapons are also (thankfully) delineated more in their use, partially by giving them strengths against the aforementioned protection types.

On the enemy side, bullets are now far more damaging. That means – you guessed it – cover combat. I’m not a huge fan of this trend (I think hiding behind boxes is far better suited to a stealth game than an action one) but it’s executed competently enough, cover is plentiful, and moving between it is easy. It bothered me ideologically, but not in practice.

But I suspect the most controversial change will come in terms of weapon variety. As discussed in part one of Critical Mass Effect, the first game threw hundreds of lootable guns at you, all of which functioned more or less the same. As with so many other design decision, the sequel decides to embrace defeat rather than make an obvious fix; the result is that there are no longer any lootable guns, and the player will only find between 2 and 3 models of a given gun type (shotgun, pistol, etc.) in an entire playthrough.

On one hand, this really blows for weapon variety; but it does mean you get a couple SMGs that are really distinct from one another, and that’s worth something, though it would have been better if they were equally balanced rather than being more or less straight upgrades. Additionally, all of these weapons are upgradable, meaning you finally have something decent to spend your credits on.

MassEffect2 2013-04-27 22-42-32-81

The combat is kept interesting through the powers system. Whereas the traditional FPS offers you all manner of weaponry  Mass Effect 2 puts all the most interesting stuff in the power bucket. Powers are much more delineated in this game; biotics feel very different from tech abilities, and each power fills a distinct role. I played an infiltrator, who can cloak for short periods of time, and this significantly altered my combat possibilities.

The big change here is that all powers share a single countdown timer; this allows you to use the power that best serves the situation, rather than being forced to use them all equally. If the powers were too unbalanced, this could result in you spamming your way through the entire game; fortunately, the powers allotted to my character had different situational uses, and given that you now have better control over your squadmates’ powers, ME2 ends up being a decent facsimile of a tactical shooter. It doesn’t have the complexity of Rainbow Six, or even Dragon Age: Origins, but it manages to hit a sweet spot between challenging tactics and mindless shooting.

Commander Shepard vs. the Army of Lackeys

Sadly, Mass Effect 2 actually takes a step backwards when it comes to *who* you’re shooting. Mass Effect‘s enemies were unimaginative, but sufficiently varied. You had big Geth, little Geth, fast Geth, slow Geth, Geth with rocket launchers, and Geth that could climb on walls. Throw in the Husks (e.g. zombies), Thorian creepers (also zombies) and Rachni (fast zombies!) and you really had the full spate of enemies.

In contrast, Mass Effect 2 wants you to kill mercenaries. So many mercenaries. Like, I haven’t killed this many mercenaries since Soldier of Fortune 2.

MassEffect2 2013-04-28 09-30-06-77

It’s a curious design decision. The good thing about the Geth is that they really were just sociopathic robots. Mercenaries, however, are people, and it introduces some serious ludonarrative dissonance when Shepard is killing the galaxy’s population by the thousands just because they’ve signed on with someone she doesn’t like. And it’s not like they’re all agents of evil. On more than a few occasions, Shepard heartlessly attacks a mercenary base to get to some person or thing she wants. The mercenaries defend themselves from this attack, and get mowed down. Who exactly is the villain, here?

The bigger issue is that there isn’t enough enemy variety. You get a few species (Krogan, Vorcha) that behave a little differently, but it mostly ends up being a cover-shooter target gallery, and it’s a wonder that it’s as satisfying as it is; I suspect that if it weren’t so easy (even at the harder difficulty settings) it would be more obnoxious.

But what’s worse is the bosses of these lackeys. They suck. A few attempts are made to justify this slaughter with various Corrupt, Abusive Mercenary Leaders, but they’re all the same and I can’t remember a single one of them. But they’re really just filler; the game’s Big Bad are the Collectors, who are….lackeys of the Reapers.

They are entirely without character, having only a single speaking leader whose dialog seems grabbed from an ’80s Saturday morning cartoon. Let me give you an example of some of the “menacing” things he yells as he attacks you throughout the game:

“This hurts you!”
“Direct intervention is necessary!”
“I know you feel this!”
“We are your genetic destiny!”

Jesus Christ. Can the Reapers just get here, already? I mean, they were Generic Evil, but here we just have the Generically Evil Employees of Generic Evil. No one likes dealing with middle management.

Greying Mass Effect

MassEffect2 2013-04-28 08-53-26-78

ME2 seems to have a dim recognition that the original’s “paragon/renegade” system was just another dull good/evil binary, as was the game’s story and characters at large.

From the get go, it seeks to complicate things by having Shepard rescued by Cerberus, a violent, bigoted human supremacy organization that any sidequesting player would have battled in the last game. Initially, this seems like a brave move; for the first time in a Bioware game, you’re working for the bad guys, and have to work within their system for the greater good.

That’s the promise, anyway. In practice it doesn’t work. Almost all the crew members are indistinguishable from the happy-go-lucky crew of the Alliance, including yeoman Kelly Chambers, who (either out of ignorance or bizarre narrative incongruity) argues that Cerberus likes all species equally. The worst we see from them is in their past (the experimentation on Jack, the attack on the Migrant Fleet); everyone actually employed by them is Human Decency incarnate, except for Miranda, who can at worst be accused of being rather cold.

The Illusive Man is the only one who really walks that edge, and he’s an interesting character; but he’s almost inconsequential. His interactions with Shepard are limited, and Shepard gets to do whatever the hell she wants (within the game’s linear narrative, anyway) and he continues to funnel money to her.

MassEffect2 2013-05-04 20-12-34-67

When the issue comes up (and to the writer’s credit, it does with fair frequency) Shepard can either defend Cerberus or attack them; but doing the latter is irrelevant and nonsensical, since she shows no inclination to leave their service (Greater Good and all that, I guess). Bioware is trying to have its cake and eat it too; it’s wants the moral complexity without changing their shallow Hero’s Quest blueprint, and so the former gives in favor of the latter.

As for the paragon/renegade meter – everything I criticized it for is as present as ever, and is made even worse by the fact that you can invest experience in “boosting” the morality points you get for any decisions that generates them, so, uh, your morality bars fill up faster. It’s further gamification of a system that should never have been quantitative to begin with.

Paging System Shock

This doesn’t really fit anywhere else, but I’ve got to say it: Bioware needs to stop using the System Shock paradigm. Who-knows-how-many quests consist of the player going to a place where everyone is dead, and finding logs that recount how events went south. It’s tired and lazy. In 1994, it was original, and System Shock offered a level of complexity by having the logs out of chronological order and reasonably tied to the places they were found. Bioware has nonsensical audio diaries that are always placed in sequential order, seriously injuring suspension of disbelief. I don’t begrudge a developer doing this once or twice in a game, but here it just seems like a budget measure. “Look! We don’t have to do animation or dialog trees!”

MassEffect2 2013-05-04 11-22-43-84


I’m going to end this series of thoughts with a question: why is Mordin so good? I love him. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best characters in gaming, and I can’t quite figure out why this is. Michael Beattie’s stellar voice performance is a big part of this, but he works in writing, too (as evidenced by reading transcripts of his dialog). I suppose it’s because he’s a very conflicted character, and one whose conflicts have no easy answer. When NPCs approach the player-therapist, the player is able to offer obvious advice to what ails them (good or not). Not so with Mordin. The fact that, like Wrex, he balances comic relief with dramatic weight  also distinguishes him from the other characters, which tend to fall on one divide or the other. But that’s just a shallow take – I’m hoping someone else has tackled this better than me (and also figured out why the writers couldn’t do all their characters this well, a returning quandary).


The Mass Effect series was never going to be a favorite of mine. Bioware and I share very different views of the optimal RPG, and I doubt we’ll ever come to terms, as evidenced by all my criticisms here. Yet Mass Effect 2 is an accomplished execution of the vision they have; it has a surprisingly satisfying combat system, vibrant art direction, and a cast of characters that’s above the cut. There’s a genuine variety to the mission structure, and a breadth to the galaxy it seeks to explore. Knowing little about Mass Effect 3, I suspect this will end up being the high point of the series, as Bioware is at its worse when it emulates Hollywood, something that the DRAMATIC CONCLUSION to this series is surely going to do. Be that as it may, I’m glad I played this entry; as frought with issues as it is, it’s reasonably distinct, compelling, and marks an important entry in the developing canon of Guns and Converation.

What Mass Effect Got Right

In the last entry, I highlighted the most egregious problems of Mass Effect. But the fact remains that I’ve played it to completion twice, when I don’t manage to complete most of the games I start. Clearly, it’s doing something right. To round out my coverage of the first Mass Effect, I’ll take a stab at explaining what that is.

Guns and Conversation

While Rock Paper Shotgun first coined the term “Guns and Conversation” to refer to the genre that Mass Effect 2 inhabits, it certainly refers to the original as well. It’s a genre I want to see more of. For all of its failings, Mass Effect is following in the footsteps of classics like Deus Ex and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, melding the act of Shoot Bad People Fall Down with a healthy dose of dialog trees. It’s not an immersive sim like these predecessors; it doesn’t contain nearly as many quest hubs, and segregates its action from its storytelling pretty severely. But it’s making a genuine attempt to invest the normally mindless action of the third-person shooter with some sort of context and meaning.

Guns and Conversation

Maybe this is a mistake. The more we take the shooter seriously, the more a conscientious individual must ask why we’re murdering for fun.  When we divorce it from its arcade roots, it becomes disturbing. But given that the shooter isn’t going anywhere, I think this is the lesser of two evils; better to force engagement then dodge it. To Mass Effect‘s credit, it ameliorates this by having us mostly kill space-zombies, sociopathic robots, and insane insectoids.

It’s far from perfect, but as of 2007 it was the most popular attempt at a genre I believe in, and that’s worth a lot.

Sincere Science Fiction

Even if they gave Nebula awards for video games, Mass Effect wouldn’t be winning any. It doesn’t really have an original thought in its head, and the main plot (involving the inexplicably genocidal Reapers and their PLOT FROM DARKSPACE) is about as banal as sci-fi gets. Yet the developers did far better with world-building and characterization than they did with the plot.  The Codex shows that these writers continually asked each other questions about the universe and how it functioned. What are the religious beliefs of these cultures? How do contemporary weapons and armor function? How does starship combat and comm transmissions work? Their answers aren’t going to satisfy devotees of hard science fiction, but that’s a given; you have to have faster-than-light travel and a surfeit of habitable worlds for the story Bioware wants to tell.  At the very least, the creators put more effort into fleshing out a setting than any other sci-fi game in recent memory. And at every step of the way, they’re sincere; for all its warts, it comes across as a labor of love by fans of space opera.


On top of that, there’s a wonderful attention to detail in the planetary descriptions. If exploring the planet’s surface is surprisingly underwhelming, than the top-level descriptions provided are far more authentic than one would expect in a video game. The writer clearly knew their planetary science, and the overviews provide just the right balance of realistic banality (because, after all, all known planets are just lifeless hunks of various elements) and narrative background. It has little bearing on the meat of the game, but it’s one of the aspects of the  fiction that stands out for going the extra mile.

Quest Density

If there is one thing that Bioware has delivered consistently in every game they’ve made, it’s quest density. At no point is your character without something to do. There are always places to go, and people to talk to (and/or kill). Sidequests are heaped on faster than you can tackle them, assuming you’re going through the main questline at a reasonable pace.

There’s nothing particularly clever about this design trick, but it works; even when you hit the fat middle and pacing issues rear their ugly head, there is always a short-term goal to accomplish, something to keep you moving to the next stage of the game. The fact that the developers best at this  (Bioware and Bethesda) have become the sole Western developers churning out AAA single-player  RPGs shows just how important this is for keeping players’ attention.

A Solid Combat System

Mass Effect‘s combat system isn’t going to win any awards; the shooting mechanics are about as bare-bones as you get. Arguably the hardest thing to get right in a shooter is the “feel” of firing the weapon, as the game must somehow convey the weight, power, and kick of the gun without any haptic feedback. Mass Effect doesn’t even try to do this, instead giving the player guns that use (you guessed it) mass effect fields to fire infinite bullets with little recoil until they overheat.

We don't need no stinkin' cover!

But this flaw aside, there’s nothing really *wrong* with the combat system, and in a sense it’s a pleasant throwback; while there’s a rudimentary cover system, I never used it. This has a lot more in common with the third person shooters of the ’90s than the post Gears-of-War coverfests, and running around and mowing down space monsters without any of the pseudo-realism that plagues the modern shooter is refreshing. Your character’s powers, and the ability to give commands to your squadmates, provide just enough variety to keep it from being tiresome.

Again, it’s not fantastic, but it’s a welcome change from the “D&D for Dummies” combat system Bioware had employed for KOTOR; it requires active involvement and is a strong counterbalance to the game’s many monologues.

Pseudo-Cinematic Dialog

The “dialog wheel” was one of the most advertised features of Mass Effect, and the focus in trailers (such as this E3 2006 trailer, which among other things continually assures us that Mass Effect will be “realistic”) was on the fluidity of the responses.

The dialog wheel has some serious issues, most of which I covered in my criticisms of the Paragon/Renegade system, but the flow does work. It pops up just early enough to pick one of the short responses, and Shepard responds without the awkward pause you normally see in dialogue trees. Hooray! Interactive cutscenes! Not the height of game narrative, but if you’re going to try and be cinematic you may as well go whole hog, and this minor innovation eliminates one of the major incongruities in the film-game.

A Krogan Named Wrex

Mass Effect provides six characters than can adventure with Shepard. In standard Bioware fashion, they’re all walking archetypes; you can chart a character’s narrative trajectory and guess at their history pretty shortly after meeting them. There are few surprises, because Bioware is not going for surprises. These characters are proven crowd-pleasers, and the player will know exactly what dialog-therapy to provide them as the game goes on.

Wrex's tropical vacation was ruined by genocide.

Of these, Urndot Wrex is clearly the standout. It’s hard to pin down exactly why, but I think it’s because he comes off as autonomous. Every other character is overtly subservient to and reliant on Shepard, as part of the whole power-fantasy thing. Wrex, on the other hand, is just along for the ride. As an outsider, he feels free to call out all the bullshit happening around him, which seems to please pretty much everyone. Players invested in the narrative view it as comic relief, while those less enthused will feel better knowing there is at least one other character in the galaxy who shares their cynicism.

By virtue of being the only substantial Krogan character, Wrex also finds himself at the center of the genophage issue, which is the one legitimately moral gray area in the game. As noted in the last entry, Mass Effect squanders the setup by forcing a position on the player, but I still found Wrex’s backstory genuinely thought-provoking and occasionally challenging.

Lastly, one can’t talk about Wrex without mentioning the performance of voice actor Steven Barr. The high cost associated with voice acting often limits the narratives of games and, in my opinion, has more drawbacks than benefits; but performances like Barr’s reminds us that the best actors can deliver a complexity to a character that can’t be expressed by writing alone.

What Mass Effect Gets Wrong

Welcome to the first real entry in Critical Mass Effect, a compendium of articles that will poke and prod at all the design decisions that make up the Mass Effect trilogy.This will not be comprehensive; as much as anything, I hope that this can start a conversation about Bioware and the choices they make.

In this entry, I’ll be covering everything about the first Mass Effect that significantly hurt my experience. The next entry will cover what it does well.

Without further adieu…

The Denial of Roleplaying

From the beginning, Mass Effect sold itself on choice. Character customization was played up in the previews, as was the new dialog wheel; a big deal was made about the fact that your decisions would carry over to the game’s sequel (a topic we’ll cover in the entry on Mass Effect 2).

But even in the first game, this doesn’t really pan out. In the game’s opening, Shepard (the fixed surname of the player character) receives a vision of a race of sentient machines that once destroyed all life in the galaxy. Shortly thereafter, Shepard comes across a recording of antagonist Saren referring to something called the “Reapers.”

So when Shepard reports to the Council—basically the galaxy’s governing body—the conversation goes something like this:

Shepard: “I had this vision, and it showed all these evil machines wiping out this ancient race. Then I heard Saren talked about Reapers, which is obviously what these machines are, and they’re coming back to wipe out all life in the galaxy. You have to mobilize ALL THE MILITARY to go after this guy and stop all life from being extinguished.”

Council: “Uh…what? Do you have any evidence for this story?”

Me: “No, but I had a vision!”

Council: “Uh…yeah, that’s not good enough for us. Let’s just deal with the known threat and not worry about these creatures you’ve dreamed up.”


"Why are we giving a total loon a license to kill, again?"

It’s pretty silly, but the problem is that this isn’t a cutscene; it’s a dialog segment. Bioware forces the player to play Shepard as a maniac. The only reason this isn’t ridiculous on its face is that the player knows that they are playing a video game, knows the generic “save the world” story that Bioware is telling, and knows that this threat must be real. It’s metanarrative at its worst; the writer saying “I wrote the script! I know what’s going to happen!”

At other times, the writers set up a moral quandry, only to deny the hero agency in resolving it. Late in the game, you learn that Saren is working on a cure for the Krogran, a race of beings who have been afflicted by a genetic virus that has decimated their reproductive rate. This could be a bad thing, because in exchange this race is going to form an army for use in his EVIL PLANS.

It’s a classic, genuinely difficult moral dillema: do you try to prevent the cure, and reinforce genocide in order to save countless lives? Do the ends justify the means?

Up to this point, Bioware has trained the player to resolve moral dilemmas as they see fit; but here, the player’s only course is to stop the cure. What’s worse, one of the player’s party members, Urdnot Wrex, is staunchly opposed to this. The player has only one option: convince Wrex, through words or force, that genocide is the lesser evil. If—like me—you’d been role-playing Shepard as someone who would never make a decision, then this is as frustrating as the game gets.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Compounding the issue of “forced roleplaying” is the game’s surfeit of ludonarrative dissonance—that is, the world Bioware shows us in the mechanics and the world Bioware tells us about in the writing are not the same place. Yes, this is present in pretty much all video games, and plenty of people are sick of hearing about it, but it afflicts some games worse than others, and it’s particularly problematic in Mass Effect.

The reason is that Bioware goes to great lengths to build a fleshed-out universe that we are asked to invest in. There’s an entire encyclopedia dedicated to this purpose. But the more a story asks us to take it seriously, the more scrutiny it invites. Its construction must supports its intentions.

In Mass Effect, there are too many holes. Why are there a small handful of people on the Citadel when its supposed to have a population of 200 million? Why can any code or lock in the game be broken in 60 seconds by a process of trial and error? Why does every Tom, Dick and Harry carry a sniper rifle, shotgun, assault rifle, AND pistol simultaneously even if they have no idea how to wield them? Why do quest instructions appear in my journal that my character would have no way of knowing? I stopped writing down these questions 5% of the way into the game, as they infected every system and every quest.

Sadly, the galaxy's largest space station contains no bathrooms.

Bioware knows what world they want to create, but either for the sake of fun, or because of technological limitations, their implementation directly violates what we’ve been lead to believe about the universe. If they’d been willing to curb their ambition, we could have had a story shaped by the reality (say, a relatively depopulated Citadel) but they want to have their cake and eat it too. This obviously didn’t bother many players, but for me it made it difficult to invest in the fiction.

The Paragon/Renegade System

One of the few regular points of criticism of the celebrated Knights of the Old Republic was its application of a moral binary. Any decisions you made were rated as “light side” or “dark side.” While it worked within the Star Wars setting, it also left the developers dictating the morality of the player’s actions. This becomes an issue if the developer and player disagreed on what constituted “good” or “evil”; it’s frustrating when a game’s mechanics to tell you that your moral code is wrong. As a result, KOTOR’s moral binaries were grossly exaggerated, along the lines of “give the beggar money” or “kill the beggar for no good reason,” so that few would disagree with the developer’s take. Unfortunately, this also meant they simply weren’t interesting decisions.

 Just another binary.

Bioware tried to correct this in Mass Effect with the “Paragon/Renegade” system. This system recognizes that Shepard is a hero, and will play the role of the hero, so role-playing a truly evil character is out of the question. Instead, the player gets “paragon points” for acting as a generous, inspirational leader, and “renegade” points for taking ends-justify-the-means paths to save the galaxy, muscling their way through the galaxy, or just generally being an ass.

I respect Bioware for trying to make the system more complex, but all it does is highlight how unnecessary a karma meter is. I want my actions to have consequences, but the game should keep track of my actual actions and what effects they might have, rather than giving me points on a scale. The only thing these points are used for is for the “Charm” and “Intimidate” skills, which can be used to persuade others during dialog. The function identically, making the choice between them purely an aesthetic one.

Yet the great failing of the system is that, by attaching *any* mechanics to the karma scores, it lets the power of gamification dictate your role-playing rather than the other way around. The more “paragon points” you get, the better your charm skill gets, and because it’s impossible to max out both Paragon and Renegade points, you’re strongly incentivised to choose one binary parth and stick to it, rather than having your Shepard be flexible or nuanced. It privileges one form of role-playing over another, and it does so in an arbitrary fashion. I’m fine with games having an agenda, or making some choices more difficult than others, but that difficulty has to be reflected in the world the player occupies, not in a single number on the game’s backend.

Tired Regurgitation of the Hero’s Journey

I could write a whole big thing here about how Mass Effect’s narrative construction is as uninspired as a game could get, but Film Crit Hulk already did it for me far, far better than I could. This entry is long, but well worth your time:  http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/hulk-explains-why-we-should-stop-it-with-the-hero-journey-shit/.

The Fat Middle

But while I’m passing the buck to our friend Hulk for the larger plot structure issues, I do want to pile on with him on one issue: the fat middle. Here’s how every game since Neverwinter Nights has gone:

  1. You’re in a fixed starting area (city/planet/whatever). Shit goes down. You are sent out into the world to pursue the villain.
  1. You have many choices where to go! In fact, there are exactly four places where you can go, each of which is a quest hub with a bunch of sidequests as well as a “main quest” that gives you a piece of the puzzle to defeating the villain.
  1. Once you’ve gone through these four places, you’re ready for the FINAL SHOWDOWN at a fixed, sixth location.

The problem with this structure is that the player spends 67% of the game without any real narrative impetus. Because the player can go to any of these locations at any time, and because there are (probably) more locations after a given location you’re visiting, there isn’t a sense of urgency; in theory, the world is in peril, but everything kind of stops so you can dork around in these unrelated areas. Because they’re isolated, events in one area don’t tend to speak to events in another. It creates a developmental nightmare. To do this right, Bioware would have to do constant checks on where the player has been and what they have done; but that’s a lot of trouble, so they generally don’t bother.

The result? You can’t have substantial character development during these sections, or substantial changes to the state of the world. For instance, a character couldn’t take a hit to the throat and lose his voice on the planet Questius, because he needs to deliver his dialog on planet Shootington. It restricts what the writers can do, leaves the majority of the game static, and shoots pacing all to hell.

And for what? So I can have some tiny, insignificant sense of choice—the same choice I have every time I find a plate of food with more than one thing on it. “Do I start with apples or carrots? Oh, this is so exciting!” That’s the pitch, anyway; I think Bioware does it because they can’t accept that they’re telling a fundamentally linear story, and want to pretend that the player is dictating where it goes. It’s a ruse, and it makes the linear story they’re telling considerably worse. Everybody loses.

The Frivolity of Character Progression

The core mechanic of the RPG is character progression, and it’s the only thing making Mass Effect’s combat different from a generic third-person shooter. But while Mass Effect has leveling and loot, they’re both superfluous; the game experience doesn’t change in time.

In a traditional, fleshed-out RPG, there are two real thrusts to leveling up:

  1. Becoming stronger in an absolute sense—better stats means you can tackle things you couldn’t before. In a pen and paper RPG, this is the progression from avoiding an orc when you’re low level, to taking on an army of them when you’re high level. It’s immensely satisfying and never really gets old, which is why games keep doing it.

  2. More options. You start out with a limited set of abilities, and as you learn the game’s systems and get more comfortable with them, new abilities are introduced at a regular rate to keep things fresh.

ME1 level up

Neither really apply here. In Mass Effect, enemies scale to your level in any given quest, and the enemies types repeat—so instead of getting strong and mopping up the Geth that once threatened you, you’re just shooting Higher Level Geth. In terms of abilities, there are a few that unlock, but you’re able to get them all in the first quarter of the game; after that it’s just stat boosts which, as noted above, simply aren’t relevant.

Money for Nothing

The other progression system universal to almost all RPGs is gear. As you complete challenges, you get loot that you can use to change your character and improve them.

Mass Effect opts to keep the loot consistent with the universe; there are no Magical Guns of Burning +17, just different weapons from different manufacturers. Sadly, these don’t differ much from one another; they just modify the refire rate, damage, and accuracy of weapons. One sniper rifle will fire pretty much like another, and there are no unique variants.

So you end up with a ton of loot you don’t need, which you can sell. But after you buy the few gear upgrades available (like more grenade slots) then your money is useless; you get more than enough weapons and armor from looting missions. Every once in a while I was able to buy a slightly-higher-level bit of gear from a store, but it was didn’t offer any noticeable change to my play experience.

To put this in perspective: there is an achievement, Rich, that you get for have one million credits. Before the end of the game, I had 9,999,999 credits (which maxes out the counter!) and nothing to spend them on.

The Failed Promise of Exploration

The planetary exploration sidequests in this game are so bad, I wrote a separate entry breaking one down. It’s a real shame, because I really liked the idea of exploring planets.

Jedi Mind Tricks

Persuasion checks are really hard to write. For believability, you can’t just press a charm button; you need to have a “charm path” through your dialog tree that makes sense. But Mass Effect isn’t interested in that, and I haven’t seen dialog checks used as poorly as this outside of Bethesda games.

Essentially, you can instantly persuade people to do what you want with a single sentence. Want a guy to let a hostage go? Say “Shooting the hostage is wrong!” with charm, and all of a sudden the guy goes “You’re right! I don’t know what I was thinking!” It’s too overtly mechanical, and compromises our belief that we’re dealing with real people and not just walking skill checks.

Stop Repeating Yourself

This is a nitpick, but I mention it because a LOT of developers (not just Bioware) don’t know how to use barks. Now, as the linked article notes, barks are very hard to code—you’re basically having AI control the dialog, and if they don’t use it in the exact right instance, it’s going to sound wonky.

Sadly, Bioware gave each NPC all of two or three things to say, which means they repeat their lines incessantly. There isn’t even a cooldown timer. I remember one sidequest where I held off a horde of enemies with three Alliance marines. The marines yelled “I’LL KILL YOU!” at the enemies over and over and over, like some sort of insane battle chant. It’s far from a dealbreaker, but it’s yet another design failing that compromises the immersion the game tries to foster.

 In Conclusion…

Mass Effect displays Bioware at their most amateurish. It was the studio’s first attempt at making the sort of sprawling adventure allowed by circa-2005 technology, and they cut a lot of corners in the process. It was also their first original IP since Shattered Steel (a game pretty much no one remembers), and while that blank slate gave them more creative freedom then they’d ever had, it also meant they were wandering in the wilderness. On one hand, this led them to try some noble experiments that just didn’t work (like the looting and paragon/renegade systems); on the other, this caused them to fall back on their worst narrative habits, unable or unwilling to mature their storytelling rubric.

But the fact that I’ve now played the game twice says it also has much to recommend it, and in the next entry I’ll cover just what it is that makes the game compelling, and that offers a good platform for the inevitable sequel.

Mass Effect’s Astoundingly Inept Sidequests

Author’s Note: This is the first entry in Critical Mass Effect, a compendium of articles on Bioware’s ambitious, troubled space opera trilogy. The next two entries will focus on everything wrong and right in the series’ first entry, but my contempt for that game’s sidequests needed an entry of its own.

Mass Effect’s sidequests are not all of a kind; like the game itself, they’re compartmentalized based on their location. The “Citadel” sidequests tend to consist of running around, solving people’s problems through rigorous application of the dialog wheel. The “Main Planet” sidequests fulfill Bioware’s goal of quest density, giving you extra items to grab (or people to kill) while you traipse down the Geth-filled corridors you must walk to save the world. These two halves mesh well with the larger game, and share its strengths and weaknesses.

But more prolific than either of these are the Galaxy Exploration sidequests, which see you abandoning galactic salvation in order to dork around on desolate backwater planets. When I first played the game in 2007, these were what I was most looking forward to; Bioware had promised a wide range of uncharted worlds to map and explore in the name of discovery. I loved the idea of a little sandbox-RPG gameplay in Bioware’s tightly controlled world.

What I got were a bunch of featureless, cookie-cutter planets whose only relevance was as the location of the worst sidequests I’d ever played.  The degree of incompetence on display was a genuine shock from a developer as accomplished as Bioware. The sidequests in the Baldur’s Gate series were frequently novel, even surprising, and while Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR tended to provide rather generic retreads of other games’ sidequests, they were usually competent, well-paced, and polished.

In contrast, Mass Effect’s exploration quests genuinely feel like they were randomly generated without any consideration for how they played. They don’t just pale in comparison to Bioware’s previous works, but to the randomly generated levels in Diablo or any decent roguelike.

Rather than give you an encyclopedic listing of every banal questline, I’ll give a detailed description of a quest, only slightly worse than the average, which represents every reason why you’d never want to stray outside the game’s primary levels.

A Tale of Three Bunkers

This quest, like most of them, begins with a call from Alliance military command as Shepard opens up the starmap. For some reason, the VI (virtual intelligence, a sort of lower-grade AI) at a Lunar training base has gone rogue, taken over all the automated sentries, and killed the recruits stationed there. Shepard must go to the base, take out the automated defenses, and shut down the rogue VI.

It’s not a brilliant set-up, but there are some opportunities here. It’s the first opportunity to visit Sol, humanity’s home system, which one can assume is built up in a way that the far-flung desolate worlds aren’t. Maybe we’ll meet survivors of the attack who have only entered space for the first time. Maybe we’ll uncover an interesting mystery behind how this VI went rogue.

The player is dropped to the lunar surface in the Mako, the game’s heavily-armed rover. Like every secondary planet and moon in the game, the level is a perfectly square map of uniform, mountainous terrain. There is nothing to do but drive to the points of interest marked on it (which makes sense for the lunar training facility, but less so for the random “undiscovered” collectibles scattered around these planets).

Nothing says "adventure" like bunkers!

Upon reaching the lunar base, I was underwhelmed. In place of lunar complex, there were three squat, featureless bunkers surrounded by a few turrets. The turrets are, of course, hacked, and start spewing rockets at me. Fortunately for me (but not for the narrative’s integrity) these turrets only fire slow-moving rockets and have a comically lengthy reload, meaning my little lunar rover can blow up every one without taking a scratch. One wonders how these defenses are supposed to stop an actual army.

After taking out the turrets, Shepherd must choose one of the three bunkers to enter. Entering one will reveal that it is bizarrely empty, not only of survivors, but of corpses.  There’s no real facility, either – just a couple rooms full of crates. Apparently, to join the Navy, you must first train in the art of moving furniture. And then train in moving it some more, because god knows there isn’t a firing range or obstacle course on this sorry ball of rock.

To make this trip slightly less banal, the central room is filled with automated drones intent on killing you. By “drones” I mean “floating tripod turrets,” which curiously lack any sort of movement or attack animation. Because, you know, floating things don’t animate.

After dispatching these tiresome foes, you’ll make your way to the back of the facility to confront this nefarious virtual intelligence. But, ho-ho! The VI isn’t there! Because, you know, it’s virtual. It instead exists in a distributed set of servers, somehow outside the base (?), and to defeat it Shepard must destroy the 8 power terminals in this set of rooms.


The nods to realism are almost charming, but it ends up that shooting defenseless, stationary objects isn’t a lot of fun. But do it you must, to reach the quest’s conclusion.

Sadly, this conclusion does not manifest here. Upon blowing up these stationary terminals, a text message pops up, informing Shepard that you have to repeat the exact same process in the other two bunkers. Here’s the thing: the other bunkers are identical to this one. They have the exact same floor plan, the exact same enemies, and the exact same frustratingly-damage-resistant power terminals. In the mind of the developers, the only thing more fun than filling out a form is filling it out in triplicate.

Lunar Base Layout

But no, this is Bioware. They can’t be that shameless, can they? You’re right! They’re going to spice things up with a little variety! Once the first set of terminals is down, the VI decides to flood the other two bases with toxic gas. Sadly, this doesn’t actually change the gameplay in any meaningful way; it just slows the player’s regeneration rate a little, meaning you have to be a little bit more cautious, meaning you get to spend a little bit of extra time standing behind a crate, waiting for your shield to recover.

After taking down the second base’s terminals, the real fun starts: SHIELDS! Shields over every doorway, and in front of the final set of power terminals. The shields don’t do anything, mind you, they just mean you have to spend thrice as much time shooting stationary objects as you did before – because if you’ve made it this far in the quest without offing yourself, chances are you enjoy it, you sick bastard.

I should have known better, but I figured there had to be SOME payoff to this, right? I mean, there’s still the Mystery of the Rogue VI! Yet upon performing these repetitive tasks and destroying the final VI terminal, the player receives only a single text message:

“A burst of white noise over all frequencies nearly deafens you. Your hardsuit’s heads-up display interprets it into a series of 0s and 1s:





They repeat again and again, blanketing all frequencies, until the lights on the final VI cluster flicker and die.”

At which point the quest is complete. That’s it. No character interaction. No resolution to how or why the VI went rogue. Just blowing up some computer terminals, in a featureless base, on a featureless world. It’s the antithesis of Bioware’s dialog-heavy, moral-choice infused quest template.

On the subject of VIs, the Mass Effect wiki says “Though they appear to be intelligent, they aren’t actually self-aware, just made with clever programming.” By contrast, this quest does not appear to be intelligent, most certainly isn’t self-aware, and wasn’t made with any cleverness at all, which is a description that applies to nearly every “exploration” sidequest that infects this game.

It’s not clear what happened; the most generous explanation is that Bioware committed to making a massive RPG, realized they didn’t have the time or manpower, and demanded that a few unfortunate developers churn out filler content at a rate that did not allow for any sort of quality control. Whatever the cause, the result is clear: the first chapter in one of the most celebrated series of the last decade contains some of that era’s worst design.