Face Off: Mass Effect vs. Persona

There are exactly three major games coming out in 2017 that I considered must-plays from announcement (the first being Horizon: Zero Dawn), and somehow they are all coming out within a little more than a month of one another. It’s going to be a busy springtime for us all, fellow gamers. My two most anticipated games of the year come from two franchises that have represented the best that Eastern and Western RPGs have to offer, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Persona 5, and they are coming out a mere two weeks apart. With only twenty four hours in each day and hundreds of potential gaming hours staring me in the face, this has caused me no small amount of distress. After preordering both I’m now fretting the pressure to rush through the first to get to the second and how I’m going to fit multiplayer into all of this. First world gamer problems, right?

But let’s say you aren’t an RPG aficionado, you’ve never gotten into Mass Effect, and you’ve never even played a Persona game (and fair enough, the last one came out as a relative obscurity in America nine years ago), but you are interested in giving one a shot and only have a mere sixty dollars to your name. Which to get? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. While these two franchises perhaps represent the very pinnacles of their genre, they also could not be more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda is coming out this week with Persona 5 hot on its heels in early April so if you haven’t yet experienced the brilliance that these two franchises have to offer, and are looking to buy in but not willing or able to commit to both. I’m here to help.

Persona and the rest of Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei franchise that spawned it have historically always, somewhat unfairly, taken a backseat to the blockbuster Final Fantasy series when it comes to Japanese RPGs, but while the latter has floundered somewhat in the last two generations, the former has bided its time with fighting game spin-offs, and absence has made gamers’ hearts grow fonder. PSN ports of the series have given a lot of players a chance to go back and rediscover these gems, and as a result Persona has greatly increased in popularity over the years, even spawning animated film and television adaptations of the last two games. The contemporary setting, compelling themes, unique style, and undeniable charm of the series has put it at the top of many gamers’ most beloved JRPGs list.

By contrast, the Mass Effect trilogy was a worldwide smash right out of the gate last gen. After giving us arguably the best Star Wars game of all time in Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare decided to create their very own space opera franchise out of scratch and did a better job than anybody could have imagined. Taking their penchant for memorable characters and nuanced interactive conversations and switching the core combat to third person shooting rather than the semi-turn-based system they’d leaned on since the Baldur’s Gate days, they took a niche genre and made it palatable to non-RPGers while retaining everything that made their titles great role playing experiences. And as an added bonus, they pushed gaming as a storytelling medium forward by making it a trilogy where your character, their stats, and their decisions from each game carried forward to the others, making each Mass Effect story unique to every gamer.

As different as they are, the two franchises do have one core theme in common: player choice. But even the way this is handled is different. Mass Effect lets you create your own character and steer each conversation while making the big decisions and crafting your character’s moral code based on the way you resolve the situations you find yourself in. Diplomacy or aggression, idealism or pragmatism, and compassion or duty are just some of the choices you have to make, and your character and the way the world around them reacts will change according to those choices. And these choices could be ported to the next game along with your character.

By contrast, Persona puts you in the shoes of an established character with more limited dialogue choices and a visual novel style of storytelling, but gives you endless ways to spend your time while navigating the challenges of high school and supernatural horrors with a limited amount of time to spend so that every choice really matters. While the story has multiple outcomes, the core game becomes about managing your limited time to build the relationships and abilities you want rather than building a character’s legacy through your decisions. Also, each title in the series is a stand alone, so there’s no baggage for players new to the series.

Combatwise, Mass Effect has refined its initially rough shooter mechanics to nearly rival the likes of Gears of War, adding a hefty dose of the sci-fi abilities they pioneered in KOTOR to make for action that is both strategic and visceral. The third game added a highly successful co-op multiplayer component with a community that still remains active over five years later. Truth be told, even if Andromeda was an online only shooter, I’d still buy it just for that aspect. And I’m not one who often does that.

Persona has stuck to the traditional JRPG turn-based approach and remains a shining star in that arena long after Final Fantasy left the premises. The strategic and often unforgiving combat relies heavily on uncovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses with a variety of skills to incapacitate them and get continuous combos that lead to a devastating full-party rushdown. It’s not as action oriented as Mass Effect’s real time gunplay, but it can be just as intense and every lick as satisfying.

But where it deviates most from Mass Effect -and most other RPGs- is in its cerebral themes and psychological symbolism. Most games will simply have a character tell you what they are feeling, but the unique scenarios of Persona are designed not to tell you, but to show you. Each character has their external selves; the face they show the world. But the series’ theme is that within each individual, there lies a shadow self, where their basest dark impulses hide, as well as a Persona, their inner self. For example, in Persona 4 each character had a dungeon essentially set inside of their minds where they did battle with their inner conflicts, things like personal jealousy, sexuality, and gender roles were laid bare and manifested as literal demons to be defeated before each character could come to terms with them. The brilliance of Atlus’s storytelling should not be underestimated.

By comparison, BioWare’s series ramps up the drama like a Star Wars film on steroids. If Persona is a zany but symbolically deep Japanese art film, Mass Effect is an incredible American sci-fi epic with moments that inspire shock, fear, exhilaration, tears, and laughter. What it lacks in abstract symbolism, it more than makes up for by balancing casual relatability with insane epicness. This series is nothing if not a crowdpleaser. Even the harshest naysayers are first in line for their copy whenever a new one comes out, and that says more than any number of complaints about facial animations can.

Both series revolve around character interactions. Mass Effect will have you hunting down each crew member between missions for fully cinematic chats where you can get to know each character as if they were your own family. If you play your cards right, you can even find a little romance. And there’s plenty of time to give everybody attention, so no big rush.

Persona uses the more comic bookish static visual novel style for conversations, but with tons of NPCs around town and school on top of your party members to hang out with and a limited amount of time in each day to get to know them, prioritizing your friendships and potential romances makes them that much more vital. Each major character has their own story that plays out over the course of the game, but how much of it you end up experiencing is up to you. Persona is as much a social and time-management simulator as it is a role playing game, and that’s something else that makes it a unique challenge.

In terms of overall presentation, Persona’s anime stylishness clashes with Mass Effect’s attempts at photorealism. This affords the former a more timeless low budget look whereas the latter will be mocked for every graphical glitch. It’s not easy pushing the boundaries of technology, so Atlus tends to stick to what they know will work for them and focuses instead on a compelling experience for the player. BioWare was at the forefront of innovation last gen, not only with pushing cinematic NPC animations to a new level, but pioneering the ability to transfer a character and their story across multiple games with Mass Effect.

At the end of the day, your inner otaku and art student will likely love you for going with Persona 5. It’s got a relatable modern setting, unique visuals and music, classical RPG combat with some twists, and one of the best storytelling pedigrees in the industry. Mass Effect: Andromeda is designed to light up every inch of your sci-fi fixation and represents the ground floor of a new era for a series that has dominated best series discussions for years. So if you’ve never felt the need to board on this gravy train before, now’s the time.

Obviously, any true RPGer is going to be buying both, but which one you prefer will rely very heavily on you as a person and a gamer. I’ve illustrated some of the many contrasts between the two series, so it really boils down to whether you prefer action or turn-based strategy, stylized visuals or attempted photorealism, stand-alone stories or continuous narratives, innovation or classicism, epicness or artfulness, and so on. Personally, I love all of these things and can’t wait to play either. But which RPG will you be prioritizing this spring?

I Experienced Mass Effect: New Earth and Didn’t Even Get a Lousy T-Shirt

Mass Effect: New Earth (PRNewsFoto/3D Live)

You know, I’d actually forgotten that they were making my favorite video game series into an amusement park ride when I suddenly found that Mass Effect: New Earth was opening last month in Santa Clara’s Great America amusement park in my home state of California. My first instinct was to run out my door and drive straight there, forsaking the earthly amenities of job, home, and family for the opportunity to be among the first to experience BioWare’s masterpiece in ride form.

But being the calm, cool, and collected geek I am, I bided my time, let the hype and the crowds die down a bit, and scraped together some cash to do this properly. Hell, I even brought along the wife and kid because why not. The words “Great America” hadn’t really entered my mind since I went as a teenager due largely to the inordinate number of awesome theme parks residing in Cali, but one way or another, I knew I was not getting out of this summer without experiencing firsthand the temple they’d practically built in my backyard paying tribute to my most revered gaming franchise. And last week, experience it I did.

mass effect new earth entrance

Yaaasssss!

In the month I waited since the ride’s opening, I was careful to avoid any and all articles that may have spoiled the experience. I wanted to go in knowing nothing, and I succeeded. Was there any possibility that this thing was going to live up to the hype I was burdening it with? Fuck no. It’s a five minute amusement park ride. It was never going to encompass the insanely epic trilogy spanning dozens of hours and worlds and hundreds of cosmic possibilities. You can’t even adequately sum up the basic concepts of Mass Effect in five minutes.

And then there’s the fact that Disney’s Star Tours had done the same thing with the Star Wars franchise nearly thirty years ago and many have trod that ground since. Hell, the Minions have their own 3D ride at Universal Studios. So maybe a little underwhelming, then? Yeah, a bit. But still, anything worth doing is worth redoing Mass Effect style. New Earth is a fun little romp through a small section of the Mass Effect universe during the events of the third game that revamps the old concept with some added twists borrowed from other Disney attractions.

When you read that this is a “4D holographic journey” you may wonder what kind of mind-bending astrophysics are implemented to bring this fourth dimension into play in a world that consists of a mere three. All it really is an added immersion factor that stimulates you with various well-timed sensations during the ride. Ever wondered what a rachni’s breath smells like? Well, now I know. That and the temperature of their slobber. So basically, I’m a better fan than you now. Thanks, Great America!  

Where Star Tours put you inside of a room that moves in time with the show to give the illusion of movement, New Earth has each individual seat move while blasting you with air and occasionally water as well as some scents, so you see, hear, feel, and smell it all. You can even smell the dust when your ship brushes against a mountain. Along with the live performer acting as your captain and the gigantic screen with 3D effects, it’s a really cool experience.

mass effect new earth spectre armour display

Spectre armour on display in both fem and bro models.

There’s plenty of fanservice on hand (both times I rode it, fangirls screamed when the captain mentioned that a certain Commander Shepard may have once ridden that very ship) including appearances from the Normandy and some of her crew, but the experience is very friendly for non-gamers as well. A pre-boarding video gives you the basics of Mass Relay travel and you don’t need to know much to enjoy a virtual space ship ride with 3D lasers and monsters and stuff.

All in all, New Earth is a great premise whose only downfalls are that it’s already been done and the experience is all too brief. The games are better, but after I shut them off I don’t have an entire amusement park full of badass thrill coasters, water slides, and churros at my disposal either. Great America was more than worth the cost of its admission (assuming you get the online discount) so the addition of a Mass Effect attraction is just geek-flavored icing on the cake. And the lines weren’t even bad on a Sunday.  

Surprisingly, I actually had trouble finding any merchandise for the recently opened ride, unless you count getting my picture taken with a life-size cutout of Urdnot Wrex. I went into most of the shops over the course of the day and found everything from a giant dragon skull replicas to multiple stores dedicated to Peanuts to a t-shirt of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy that was suggestive enough to prompt my wife to photograph it and text it to her lesbian friend, but no Mass Effect gear.

mass effect tali shirt

You shall be mine….

I’ve always wanted a Mass Effect t-shirt, but have only ever run across some pretty bland N7 logos. I was really hoping to go home with a really awesome one, but as we headed for the exit and the park darkened around us, my quest had failed. Ironically, I am irritated when other theme parks dump you from a ride directly into a themed gift shop, but the one time I actually want a whole store dedicated to an attraction, I can’t find anything. But wait! What’s that? The gift shop right at the entrance so you don’t see it coming in, but can’t miss it going out has the shirt I need but never knew I wanted sitting in the window! A killer stylized design of notorious space waifu Tali’Zorah vas Normandy herself stared back at me, beckoning.

If this seems like a fairy tale ending to a quest for merchandise from a man who normally despises souvenirs, it is. That is to say, it didn’t actually work out in real life. The shirt was there on display, but when I ran in to sing “how much is that Tali in the window?” they were sold out. My entire life, in a nutshell, folks.

It was a great day I had prompted by my love of Mass Effect, but I do have to question Great America’s merchandising stratagem. I mean, come on! You just opened this awesome ride based on one of the greatest gaming franchises last month. You knew Biodrones would be coming from near and far to throw their money at you and you drop the ball on stocking t-shirts? Shame!

Still, if you’re in the NorCal neighborhood and looking for a great way to spend your time, you could do a lot worse than stopping by Santa Clara to give Mass Effect: New Earth a go. It’s -as Tali would say- totally worth it. It doesn’t reinvent the Star Tours wheel, but it does give it a nice new video gamey coat of paint (and monster drool). Who’d have thought video game rides would turn out better than video game movies? Admission to the park is about forty dollars a pop if you order online, the crowds were extremely manageable, the roller coasters are top notch, there are carnival games and an in-house water park; there’s literally something for everyone. Just don’t go for the Mass Effect merchandise.

The Cost of Failure: Five Harsh Ways Gaming Makes You Pay for Your Mistakes

failure

You know the old saying: you can’t win ‘em all? Gamers tend to take that one pretty hard. Our pride is based around overcoming and achieving so in a way, we measure our worth based on winning. This is a big part of why so many of us are so damn aggressive. You never accomplish anything in a game by sitting around or letting others have their way and this translates somewhat to our worldview.

Video games have taught us some hard lessons over the years. While some may hold our hands with constant auto-saves and instant respawns, most of them take a psychological toll when you fail, for better or worse. Nobody likes to be in respawn time-out or see hours of progress erased, but inevitably if you persevere it will make you a better gamer and that’s what we all should want at the end of the day in games and in life: to get better. These are five of the approaches that games have taken over the years to kick our asses and force us to learn how to win instead of lose.

coin bioshock infinite

They can take our money, but they will never take our freedom!

Busy Unearning

A lot of games have taken to auto-saving after every battle or free respawns so you can die and die again without losing anything. This makes for maximum fat-paced fun and encourages experimentation, but others refuse to reward your lack of focus and take it out of your ass.

In a lot of MMORPG’s the cost of a respawn is financial or worse: they take it right out of your character, banishing your hard-earned experience into the void as if it never happened. Bioshock Infinite augmented the free respawning for babies feature from the first game by liquidating a portion of your currency when you died, quickly draining your hard-won resources and leaving you with almost nothing when you hit a rough patch. It drove me insane.

There are few things nastier than taking what a player has earned and scattering it to the winds. In the MMO-based anime Log Horizon they translated the XP penalty as literal memory loss. Life is literally made of experiences and when you lose them, you lose a piece of yourself. In video games this holds true to an extent. It can take hours to build up money or XP, and it can be lost in seconds like you never earned it at all in a title where every little bit counts hurts.

Harshness Rating: Screw You

dark souls you died

Lot of that going around I hear.

Progress Lost

This is most common punishment in JRPG’s and it’s a classic. Save points. Limiting the player’s ability to save their progress is probably the most fair way of encouraging gamers to think before they act, but it’s still horrible at times. The dungeons of classic Final Fantasy or modern Persona games were often unforgiving places that required supplies and preparation and once you were inside it was all about risk and reward. Back then, fleeing a battle or even the entire dungeon was often the only way to keep your earnings and make progress.

When you only get a save point every hour or so the stakes are a lot higher in everything you do. It combines the massive unpleasantness of losing all of your earned gold, loot, and XP with the added aggravation of erasing that entire stretch of gameplay as if it never happened. Now it’s really hitting you where it hurts. You’ve not only lost assets in-game (including any rare drops that are hard to replicate) but you’ve lost the time in real life it took you to make that progress. As the kids say: shit just got real.

One of the nastiest series of all is Dark Souls where you literally cannot progress your character unless you improve every time you run at an area. You lose all of your XP and currency when you die and if you want to get it back, you have to make it to the spot where you died and collect it, otherwise it vanishes and you’re back at your last save point with nothing to show for your struggles.  It’s like that line from The Simpsons: “Your game shows reward knowledge. Here, we punish ignorance.

Harshness Rating: NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

mass effect miranda death

Finally… a scene where…. the camera *cough* isn’t on… my asssss…..

So Long, Old Friend

This one has been gaining some momentum over the last couple of gens: the looming shadow of permadeath. When a character dies, they stay dead and there’s nothing you can do about it. As characters have become more lifelike, this has become increasingly distressing, and it adds a massive shot of tension into any game where it’s possible for a character to permanently die.

Tactical RPG’s use it as a way to discourage sacrificial tactics and make you really earn your victories since the stakes are higher. Is victory even worth it if you lose a beloved character in the process? Story-based horror games are making use of this concept as well with Until Dawn and Heavy Rain threatening permanent death for any character should you make the wrong decisions or slip up at the wrong time.   

We are becoming more and more attached to video game characters by the year and as we do the penalty of permadeath becomes harsher. Whether it’s losing them as a commodity, all of the time and experience points you spent building them up, or simply facing the prospect of playing the rest of the game without their presence, we feel the loss.

The Mass Effect series is arguably the gold standard here, as it’s possible to lose almost anyone and with each character having a deeply involved story, losing them means not only one less party option, but losing a chunk of the story along with them. Make good decisions. The lives of your friends may depend on it.    

Harshness Rating: Buckets of Tears

sonic game over

Admit it, old schoolers: you’re hearing the music right now.

It’s Game Over, Man

Ah, the old school standard. You’ve got a long stretch of challenges laid out before you and a limited amount of lives at best to get it done. When you run out of lives and/or continues, you start all over again. It’s the brutal tried and true method that defined video games for the first two decades when arcades dominated the industry landscape. Consoles followed suit and delivered enduring challenges like Mega Man, Battletoads, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Back then this was simply how it was so it’s only in hindsight that we realize how goddamn maddening it is to have to start back at square one. It made a lot of sense for an industry dominated by coin-op machines to be unforgiving because more challenge = more quarters = more profit. And with save files not really becoming standard operating procedure until the 90’s it made sense that console games utilized a similar “better luck next time” do-or-die structure for most of their formative years.

Now that we’re all spoiled with checkpoints and anytime saves it’s almost unheard of to wipe out a player’s progress upon dying with the dreaded “Game Over” screen. At worst you repeat a level from the beginning or go back to your last save point. And we’re still pissed about it. Even extremely challenging retro-styles games like Hotline Miami let you take as many runs at a level as you need. There’s just no real market for those kinds of games anymore, but there is at least one holdout that comes to mind.

The Way of the Samurai series drops you into feudal Japan with but one life to live and many possibilities to make your mark on the world, but as the ancient quote says “the way of the samurai is found in death”. If you die, your save file is wiped and you have to start another game from the beginning. And if that’s still not hardcore enough for you, there’s an option to eliminate health bars and make every strike a deathblow. The prospect of a true Game Over is what made gaming so intense in its formative years and I hope at least some piece of that can be carried forward to infuriate future generations.

Harshness Rating: So Many Broken Controllers

persona 4 bad ending

Translation: you are a bad gamer and you should feel bad.

Player, You Have Failed This Game

This is possibly the most dreaded consequence in all of gamedom: the prospect of failing at your appointed task and not finding out until it’s too late, having poured hours into a game and its story. Normally, it’s fairly easy to avoid if you’re a veteran gamer, but having it happen can literally ruin an otherwise glorious experience or at least give a great game a horribly underwhelming finish.

The first game I remember utilizing this was the original Prince of Persia in 1989, where you were tasked with rescuing a princess and given a short time to do it. A literal clock was ticking and if you weren’t fast enough to beat the baddies, avoid the traps, and navigate the levels that was it. The game was hard enough as it was, but the time limit made it seem murderous to somebody like me who routinely gets lost exploring. Doing everything right but still failing and having to start all over was just a bad feeling, but it would get worse in later years as games got longer and the stories more involved.

Games like Ogre Battle set the standard for failing while succeeding in the 90’s with the introduction of multiple endings. In that amazing tactical RPG you not only had to overcome insane military challenges in no-save battles that often lasted for hours each, but you had to abide by extremely strict restrictions (for example, no attacking lower level units) or lose your reputation. If you beat this monumental challenge with a low reputation, you received terrible endings as a reward for your countless hours and wars of attrition. Wing Commander punished failure to complete mission objectives by putting the results of war effort as a whole on your shoulders. If you coasted through the game or just couldn’t get it done, you had a crap ending awaiting you.

In later years, games like Shenmue and Persona 4 would punish you with lame endings if you didn’t meet their occasionally hazy standards. In most games with multiple endings, you almost have to deliberately be a tool to get the bad ending. In Persona 4 you’re almost always under threat of a game over if you don’t take care of business in a timely manner, but when it comes down to the end game, it was extremely easy to get an unsatisfying ending to what was otherwise an incredible story. Heavy Rain sets the gold standard by leaving the murder of a child as punishment for failing to get it together hanging over your head, making the stakes of the story very personal while making it clear that it will carry through with the threat. It’s fair, but still extremely nasty.

We’ve learned over the years to keep as many saves as possible as a safeguard against exactly this sort of thing, but it’s a lesson a lot of us learned the hard way. If you’ve ever poured dozens of hours into a game and gotten tricked into a shit ending with the only option to rectify it being going through the whole thing again it not only sucks, it will literally change the way you approach video games from there on out. Once it happens to you, you will always prepare for the worst with that experience in mind and even seek spoilers online to stop it from happening ever again.

Harsh as they are, game overs are expected in certain kinds of games and character deaths add gravitas to the proceedings while lost progress and earnings are necessary for the sake of challenging the player to do better. But having you miserably fail the game after playing through the entire thing? The only punishment more hardcore would be a game that bricks your whole system. Oh God, I hope I didn’t just give them an idea…

Harshness Rating: Antidepressant Prescription Incoming

Should Romance in Gaming be a Serious Commitment or a Casual Affair?

romance

The history of virtual romance is a pretty brief one, but there’s been a lot of evolution in the last couple decades. What began as the hero wordlessly rescuing the damsel in distress and maybe getting a kiss for his trouble after spending countless hours fighting and dying has since become an often long-and-involved wooing process between comrades in arms with fully-realized characters of both genders and various sexual orientations combined with interesting and charming personalities.

As video games strive more and more for artistic integrity and the caliber of talent involved in the industry continues to grow, the line between casual fun and realistic immersion starts to show itself. Back in the day, gaming was all about kicking back and living out your boyhood fantasies of being the studliest stud ever to stud, but lately, the former casual distraction had been striving for art. No longer limited to children and basement-dwelling man-children, gaming is for everyone. Video games can be used as a medium to explore mental illness, heartbreak, and advanced space-time physics just as readily as it can have you jump over a bunch of barrels or kill a thousand bad guys. They can even make you fall in love.

tifa lockheart final fantasy 7

My one wish for the FF7 remake: guess it.

But that brings back the old divide. Traditionally speaking, when love and sex make their way into video games it’s like the ’60s all over again; free love and good times for all. You meet a series of lovely ladies over the course of your adventure, and you bang them all. Maybe you choose one you like more than the others at the end and everybody’s happy. But should it always be that easy? Do we want our in-game waifus to be just friends with benefits or are we willing to seriously commit?

Video games have often been kind of a safe place for we nerd boys. A place where we weren’t judged and could be as awesome (or stupid) as we want to be in a world we command with no fear of social rejection. With the right combination of inputs any challenge could be overcome. Real people are so much more complicated, unpredictable, and… unsettling. Yet art always strives to speak to (if not reproduce) real world experiences, and to do that properly, we’re going to need some more realistic romance with genuine consequences for our actions.

However, there should always be room for casual fun too.

Final Fantasy has long made romance a typical aspect of its plots, but it’s always on rails. The player is a spectator to the love between the leads, but never really a participant. How many of us were forced to date Aeris just so Sephiroth could kill her and make us hate him when we always kind of liked Tifa more and had to watch Cloud’s ass mope while his lovable childhood friend pined away for him? Not saying that’s not legit storytelling, but we can get that in movie, books, and television. To really invest the player beyond what you can get from traditional media, games need to involve the player in the characters’ romantic choices.

BioWare has made a lot of headway in the video game romance department, evolving heavily over the years to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters as well as consequences for unfaithfulness. Over three Mass Effect games I cultivated a relationship with Liara T’Soni as an ideal romance for my FemShep (since Tali never came around) only to throw it all away on a spontaneous shower tryst with that cute comm jockey, Samantha Traynor. Never could resist a lady with an accent.

mass effect 3 samantha traynor gif

Brutal honesty also makes me hot.

Probably should have saved beforehand, but I kind of assumed they’d go the traditonal “hit on everyone you can and then choose between them” route. It’s not like I expected to put one over on the Shadow Broker, but the conversation where Liara told me she wasn’t interested in games anymore and broke it off has bothered me ever since. And that’s great. Genuine feels attained! I felt better about it after the Citadel DLC showed that Sam is a WAY better dancer than Liara (and crazy nerdy to boot), but still. Well played, BioWare.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed games as a way to be a vicarious man-slut. It’s a direct contrast to my ‘real life’ personality, where I’ve been happily married to the only girl I ever kissed for fifteen years, but you know what? I’ve earned a little fictional sexual irresponsibility. Nobody gets hurt for real in video games. There are games like Alpha Protocol where you can pretty much have sex with every woman who shows up in the story without them ever finding out or caring and the Fable games where you can get away with marrying a different person in every town (but if two of them ever meet, you could be looking at a public scene). Fable 3 even kept track of how many STD’s you contracted in your journeys.

I have to admit, I enjoy the option to live carefree and skanky. Slutshaming is for sad, repressed prudes, and doubly so in fictional settings. But at the same time, I feel that these games are often missing genuine investment. True love is throwing yourself into another person until you can’t even see yourself without them. Video games should represent that aspect as well for the true romantics out there. Like I said, gaming is for everyone. There’s always a fair balance.

And that brings us to the game that inspired this article, The Witcher 3. Past games in the franchise gloried in making the title character, Geralt, a megapimp who was irresistable to just about all of the women he met in his travels. And that still remains more or less true in the third game since there are multiple sex and romance options, but at the end of the day it does boil down to choice and consequence. Not groundbreaking at all, but interesting in a different way.

witcher 3 geralt triss yennifer

Decisons, decisions….

Spoilers in the next two paragraphs.

Geralt’s two “true” loves in the series are the sorceress’ Yennifer and Triss Merrigold. Yen was in the first game, Triss in the second. In the third game, the ladies occupy two different continents and you get to spend sexy time with each in turn if you play your cards right. But eventually, the magically-inclined heroines will tire of Geralt’s cavalier ways and if you’ve led them both on too long, they lure you into a bait-and-switch threesome and leave you tied to the bed with the nastiest case of blue balls in video game history, later assuring you that the new galpals are no longer interested in Geralt of Rivia. It’s cold, but kind of awesome.

That is one time I was glad to have something accidentally spoiled ahead of time since it will hopefully help me get a better ending (TRIIIIISSSSS!!!), but at the same time I’m kind of impressed with CD Projekt Red for respecting the characters enough to pull out the classic trope of the women joining forces to give the philanderer his just desserts rather than fighting over him like schoolgirls or sharing him because he is just so goddamn manly.

End spoilers.

So The Witcher 3 seems to have struck a pretty good balance between playing as a traveling monster hunter/sex machine who is free to play fast and loose with the ladies as he pleases, but not without consequences. The most satisfying romantic endings appear to be reserved for gamers who play it conservatively, while those who just want to bang hot chicks have plenty of chances for that. Both the choices and consequences are yours, just as they should be.

witcher 3 triss geralt

Stop it. You’re going to make me cry.

As game stories become more and more emotionally engaging and the characters more fully-formed, it’s natural that they’d start treating their love interests more like real people instead of simple devices to fuel the players’ adolescent harem fantasies. On one hand, it’s fun to engage in the escapism of consequence-free fun, but on the other, we crave more feels and immersion in the gaming world and you can’t really attain that when the entire thing revolves around fulfilling your every base wanton desire. It starts to feel like you’re being patronized after a while.

As always, a good balance is necessary to give everybody what they want and it looks like gaming is well on its way to giving us digital romance options that will satisfy everyone. Variety is the spice of life, but to unlock the full potential of a relationship, you’ve got to commit yourself to it first. The Witcher 3 appears to be pointing the way forward in those respects and other devs would do well to study its lessons.

Are Some Games Too Nice to Play Twice?

twice

This is something I’ve been struggling with for most of this generation: whether or not I want to replay some of my favorite titles before moving on. Games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV, and The Last of Us; but especially epic trilogies like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

Traditional thinking would be that of course you should experience your favorite games again and again! Bang for your buck! Know every nook and cranny! And being that familiar with Final Fantasy IV (a game I played through maybe a dozen times) didn’t at all reduce my love of the DS remake so there’s personal precedent that that may be true. But there’s a big part of me that feels like in this day and age familiarity breeds contempt.

As the old winking axiom says, you never forget your first time and my first time playing BioWare’s games in particular were so overwhelmingly great it almost feels like a disservice to revisit them in their entirety. I played through most of them right after my “real” playthrough just to do the opposite of what I did before, but when you’re doing that, it’s just not the same. I ended up quitting before the end almost every time, which is a sign that something wasn’t quite clicking.

catherine gif

Pictured: best ending ever.

When you’ve spent 40+ hours doing everything you can do and squeezing every last drop of awesome out of a truly great in-game universe and its story, there’s arguably nothing more satisfying in my experience as a gamer. Sometimes I feel genuinely sad as the end credits roll on a game knowing I’ve already experienced pretty much everything there is to experience and I want to hold onto that feeling that I’ve just completed a true interactive work of art. Going back to dick around and use cheats and act like a jerk and skip the cutscenes risks making the game feel less special in the long run, you know?

One of my favorite games of the last gen was Catherine. I loved it so much I became determined to achieve every ending. And I did. But after that first memorable, hard-fought playthrough my dislike of puzzle games kicked in and I turned the difficulty down and super-jumped my way through the nightmares, made choices only based on what ending I wanted with the walkthrough in my lap, and skipped through the cutscenes whenever possible, only caring about seeing the end result.

I loved seeing all the different endings, but my behavior in getting them seems like I was selling one of my favorite games short. Games are meant to be fun, challenging, and engrossing rather than just something you do to get a certain result, yeah? The repeat playthroughs felt so impersonal, like I was just on auto mode until the ending cutscene.

Anyways, back to BioWare. I keep telling myself that I’m going to download the DLC I have yet to experience and play the entire trilogies in their entirety front to back. And why wouldn’t I? They were hands down my favorite thing from the last decade of gaming. But some other part of my brain is screaming that this would somehow diminish my rose-tinted memories.

star wars walker smash gifmash

That is the worst-armored combat vehicle in sci-fi history.

How many times have I watched the Star Wars trilogy? Plenty. Recently I was watching it yet again with my son and I noticed something disturbing: I wasn’t experiencing that joy I remembered. I was picking apart the dialogue and the costumes and little technical storytelling flaws and not experiencing it like I used to. I’d seen it all before and loved all of the love. All that was left was looking for something to hate. That’s a crummy feeling.

Video games in particular suffer from this because the involved technology improves so constantly and dramatically. Remember when Final Fantasy VII seemed like awesome graphics? The smoothness of controls and other subtle luxuries we’ve become slowly accustomed to in past years often makes successfully revisiting classics really dependent on nostalgia. It usually takes decades for films to age and seem quaint, but in gaming it only takes a few years.

And here we are just getting into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Another trilogy I adore is coming to a close and another one I’ve vowed to replay in its entirety. But after I finish what early reviewers are saying is the best iteration of the franchise, if I go back to play the first is it going to seem lame in comparison? Am I going to get bored or clinical and have that be the way I remember a game I enjoyed so much in its day?

I’m never going to get that feeling of meeting my favorite characters or being surprised and delighted by a particularly funny sidequest for the first time. I’ve already formulated my delta attack of grease bomb/flames/earthquake and laughed my evil laugh as my foes fall down, burn, then fall down and burn some more countless times. I’ve already raged that those abilities weren’t available in the sequel and loved it anyway. With so many great Dragon Age memories, shouldn’t that be enough? Do I really need to play those games again when there’s nothing left to prove?

dragon age varric gif

No, Varric, but you could button up anyways.

And with so many possibilities in Mass Effect should I do what I did the first time and play “my” trilogy again, just making minor adjustments to fix mistakes I regret (I’m sorry, Legion and Yeoman Chambers. SO SORRRYYYYY!) and get my perfect result knowing what’s going to happen with no consequences in store or should I really commit to a new path and try to experience the story in a different way without being clinical and ruining the magic? Oh shit, I think I’ve already done just that by thinking about it too much. It’s the dreaded lose-lose!

But what if they overhaul the old games and upgrade them to bring them into the next generation with all of the DLC already on disc? Should I wait for that? It seems a likely possibility seeing that nobody seems to want to make any new games for the next gen consoles.

In my day, you bought a simplistic game about jumping and/or shooting abd punching, played it again and again until you couldn’t stand the site of it and moved on. But now we’re all sophisticated and junk. Games are art and can actively engage us on an emotional and intellectual level, but only so far as we can stay engrossed in the interactive world.

There are some films I love that I’ve never watched twice because the original was so memorable and surprising when I first saw them that that’s the way I like to remember them. Have games finally reached the point where they can invoke that kind of intellectualized protectiveness? Looks like.

I have a feeling whether or not I ultimately decide to dig out some discs and begin my favorite adventures from the past generation anew will be decided by time more than anything else. Part of the problem is the constant wealth of new games tempting me, but once I’ve squeezed the last of the untasted juice out of my PS3 and 360 and if their successors are still not impressing me, maybe, just maybe I’ll find out I’ve been wrong about this and it’ll turn out I can recapture the magic that makes a modern classic a classic. We’ll see.

Five Agonizing Choices from BioWare Games

bioware

BioWare has given us dozens of memorable choices to make over the years, and have pushed forward storytelling in video games to previously unthought-of heights along the way. The true test of whether or not a choice has any meaning is how it makes you think and feels, and BioWare regularly serves up some emotional doozies.

The way I play these types of games is to make my choices and stick with them; even if I regret them. Most of the time, I don’t go back and load a previous save. I prefer to deal with the consequences of my actions as if the story wasn’t just a game. My first playthrough is my canon playthrough for always; no takebacks allowed. I want to see how the game bears out my on the spot decisions made with good intentions, even if things end up going full Breaking Bad on me.

In the best cases, I may make the decisions I think are right, and the results may seem horribly wrong when it’s said and done. That’s when you know you’re playing something that’s more than a simple video game. That’s when it’s interactive art. Here are the moments BioWare has given me control and left me wondering for years afterwards if I did the right thing or regretting that I failed to do it.

Why, Bastila, why?

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a huge part of the decision to switch to Microsoft’s Xbox after some great years with the PlayStation. It looked like the game of my dreams, and it did not disappoint one little bit. Compared to the newer crop of games (now with 75% more ambiguous moral choices!), this one’s may not hold up on an emotional level, but there is still one that still haunts me over ten years later.kotor bastila

Bastila is a female Jedi who acts as your right hand woman through most of the game. Cute, charming, and a little uptight; she’s a solid, dependable character and potential love interest whose character evolves away from the strict code of the Jedi somewhat as the game goes on. At one point, she gets damseled, and when you go save her she greets you as a free woman. A free Sith woman, that is. Turns out that if you haven’t corrupted her already during your evil playthrough, Darth Malak’s mental torture does the trick and she has turned against the Order and you and is convinced she is beyond redemption.

Now depending on your choices, one of three things can happen. You can decide to take her out, she can decide to take you out, or you can convince her that she is redeemable. After a lengthy discussion, I chose the wrong approach, failed to convince Bastila that she still had a chance for redemption, she came at me, and I struck down a friend. I killed a valued team mate and I felt like a total failure even as I saved the universe. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt in a video game before and if BioWare hadn’t already won a lifetime fan with the rest of the game, this’d have done it.

That Goddam Mirror

In Dragon Age 2 I was presented with a serious ethical dilemma. It’s pretty much been established that blood mages are bad news at this point, so the sequel naturally puts one in your party: a Dalish elf named Merrill. In spite of her mega dark magic affinity, Merrill’s personality is made entirely out of adorableness. While her geeky combination of intelligence and naivety is normally charming, it occasionally swings into the “wtf are you DOING!?” range.

Merrill’s pet project involves an elvish artifact; specifically a tainted Evluvian mirror that she is attempting to repair. Not only is she into blood magic, but he ends up dealing with demons and all sorts of stupidity trying to get this mirror working, supposedly for the good of her people, who have shunned her because of it. At one point you have a shard of the mirror and have to decide whether to acquiesce to her desire and let her have it or keep it from her for her own good before she destroys herself.

merrill mirror dragon age 2

Seriously, da’len, you need a new hobby.

The real question there is whether you’re the kind of person who trusts in their friends and allows them the freedom to pursue their own affairs even at their own peril or the overbearing mother hen type who knows what’s best and will fight them until they agree or part ways with you. I’m the first kind. Freedom is my most consistently prized value. But it isn’t free…

So I let Merrill fuel her obsession with the mysterious, dangerous magical artifact knowing we could handle whatever came out of it. Except what happened was Merrill’s mentor sacrificed herself when the mirror bequeathed a demon bent on possession. She took the spiritual bullet for her wayward pupil and the demon used her body to attempt to kill us all. We struck the elvish elder down in self-defense just in time for the rest of Merrill’s clan to happen upon what admittedly looked like a pretty bad scene.

The banished blood mage with her forbidden dark magic artifact and her outsider companions leaving behind the corpse of the beloved elder doesn’t look great. I gave the wrong answer to their question and was then forced to slaughter my companion’s entire clan or be killed by the very same people she was claiming to be trying to save. Damn it, Merrill. I figured we could handle any foe the game could throw at us, but I never thought it’d be innocent people. Well played, BioWare.

Geth or Quarians?

This is an overarcing issue across all three Mass Effect games that comes to a head in the final installment. The Geth are an AI race who overthrew their creators, the Quarians, exiling them in deep space. They are a regular enemy who often align with the opposition, feeling threatened by biological races and occasionally manipulated by the Reapers. The Quarians are a species oppressed across the galaxy for their nomadic ways and they are consumed with the idea of defeating the Geth and reclaiming their homeworld.

This seems like an open-and shut choice, but over the course of the series and independent Geth named Legion joins your crew and teaches you a lot about his peoples’ story, culminating in you taking a tour into the Geth’s collective mainframe where you see the events that led to their initial revolt. Turns out the Quarians instigated the war that caused their own exile when they attempted to wipe the Geth out after they achieved self-awareness. Not only that, but the Quarian leadership are mostly complete assholes.mass effect tali legion

The final conflict comes in Mass Effect 3 when the two races go Armageddon on each other over the homeworld in question. The Quarians hold the advantage but Legion has a program that would allow the Geth to achieve true sentience and hypercharge their capabilities to turn the tables and end their creators. With the Quarians unwilling to back off it was one or the other.

There is a third outcome that allows for peace, given you managed to work out a certain compromise in the second game, which I somehow failed to do. So I was tasked with deciding which race gets wiped out. Fuck my life. Given that I viewed the Geth as mechanical potential, evolving theoretical lives as opposed to the clear and present sentience of the Quarians, I was moved by Tali’s pleas not to doom her people. But it was close.

I was rewarded with a tear-inducing outcome that saw Legion desperately attack Shepard in an effort to save his people before being taken out by Tali. His last words were to ask her “does this unit has a soul?” Wracked with sorrow, Tali answers “Yes, Legion. Yes it does.” It freakin’ gutted me.

The Landsmeet

Out of all BioWare’s epic story twist, turns, and choices in their games, this is the gold standard for me. The climax in Dragon Age: Origins isn’t the confrontation with the gigantic Archfiend leading the swarm of Darkspawn engulfing Fereldan. It’s the preparations made beforehand as the country struggles with divided loyalties over an impending civil war.

The Grey Warden has to take a leadership role in unifying Fereldan against the threat. Your opposition is that prick Loghain who you must first attempt to best in a debate where he expertly twists your own words and deeds against you. Win or lose, it will come down to a duel between one of your number and the evil dickhead. If you win, you are presented with a lot of heavy options.

dragon age alistair

I’m sorry, bro. [sob] SO SOOORRRRYYYY!!!!

In my case, I ended up compromising my own values for the good of the realm and making several decisions that were arguably wrong, but made with the best of intentions. I married my charming Templar knight (in training) Alistair to the ambitious queen of the realm, Anora, thinking the two of them would be the coolest of rulers. Except Alistair doesn’t like Anora. At all. So I lost a particularly cool party member and forced him to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because I thought it’d be neat. Shit.

Then there’s the issue of what to do with Loghain. I really wanted him to die. He deserved to die. But the thing is Anora is his daughter and I really wanted her support in this whole endeavor so killing her dad in front of her was not the call I wanted to make. So I had to lug this shithead around in my party now instead of Alistair. I then got the option to make him a fellow Grey Warden and allow him to die fighting the Archfiend. But then he would be remembered as a hero of the country and not the piece of garbage who betrayed it. I chose to let him live out his days in obscurity with a chance for redemption, but he never had to answer for what he’d done. Not only that, but as a favor to the witch Morrigan for services rendered (and possible future story intrigue), I….I let him bang her.

Don’t ask me how it ended up this way. I sold out my friend and gave the biggest bastard in the game the night of his life instead of a stump on top of his shoulders like he deserved. I’m actually rather ashamed that things ended up this way, but it’s a testament to the depth and nuance of the choices that the game offered to you. Life and conflict is about compromising and not always getting the result you want or doing the right thing and it’s not often you see that reflected in a video game.

The Toughest Call

For a lot of people, Mass Effect was the first time they experienced a truly agonizing choice. In RPG’s you are given a party of characters to be your friends and companions in all things. It’s part of the deal. On a few occasions, a character is scripted to die and it’s super sad, but it’s just part of the story. Their part is done. But what if their fate was in your hands?mass effect ashley kaidan

At the climax of that first amazing game in the trilogy, you send Ashley and Kaidan on separate missions and you only have time to save one before a nuke goes off and blows the facility to atoms. So who’s is going to be? How long did you sit and stare at the screen weighing the possibilities? Ash was kind of a racist tool, but an interesting foil and my best performer in combat by far. Kaidan…well, he wasn’t all that memorable or interesting to me and I preferred Liara when it came to biotic powers. Plus, Ashley’s kinda pretty. [blush]

If this was a one-off game, it wouldn’t have been any big deal. But Mass Effect is a trilogy, meaning th characters come back. While the second game had only small roles for either character, the closer brought them back to the forefront of the action on the Normandy. It’s like I barely even knew Kaidan. I’ve had three games to be attached to almost every other Normandy crew member in the series, but this guy’s story was cut short by my hand. Ash’s story in Mass Effect 3 was great. What was Kaidan going to be like in the third game? I’ll never know until I finally get around to replaying the entire series front to back.

So those are my dirty little first playthrough secrets from BioWare games that haunt me. They’re the kind of decisions that immerse you in the game’s world and really make you feel the stakes. As I’m sure some of you are raging about internally now, my picks were sorely limited by my status as a filthy console peasant so none of BioWare’s old PC classics made the list due to me not having played them.

So now it’s your turn. Share some favorite old school Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights tales if you’ve got them or tell us which Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or other latter-day game choices left a lasting impression on you. Or you can always just tell me how idiotic my choices were. No wrong way to play.