Critical Examination: Ending Choice-Based Games

I do not know what it is with games that feature choice as a gameplay mechanic and finishing them.  Can someone explain this to me?  What is it about ending them in a satisfying way?  I am probably gonna answer my own question here, but any insight that my audience has would be appreciated.  It’s just that I do not understand why some games that feature choice as a central theme go so well, and others just plain suck.  It’s a mystery.  Let’s do some critical analysis of some of my favorite games with choice as a central theme, and analyze what went right and what went wrong.

The Wolf Among Us

For whatever reason, Telltale Games just knows their shit.  At least where their early works are concerned.  Now they are just derivative bullshit, but once upon a time they set the standard for how to do episodic games right.  This was an awesome concept and a fun game.  Based on the Fables comic series, telling a murder mystery involving a rundown slum where fairytale characters are living their lives is just fantastic.  You play as a grungy cop who isn’t a bad guy, he just has a very violent history.

The element of choice is central to this game, and how it plays with the concept to affect how everything ends with the setting, the villain, and the resolution was so well done.  Maybe it was because the story wasn’t especially complicated.  Or maybe it was because the story was the center of everything and the characters built around it.  I think that might have been it.  By keeping their focus on the story instead of the characters, they could keep the time spent having to develop characters and their relationships simple.  The mystery was engaging, so you do have to think about it.

A game where the plot is the central focus may be the best thing for this kind of medium.  This game, along with its predecessor, The Walking Dead, got it right.  Granted, that game was about a small plot involving a small bunch of characters.  It was able to strike the delicate balance between flushed out characters and flushed out plot.

Mass Effect

It bugs me so much how close this game came to being a story-telling masterpiece.  Had it succeeded, this franchise would have been the hallmark in a style of gameplay that would never and could NEVER be topped.  The way that the three games in the franchise (fuck Andromeda.  We never speak of that travesty again) built a steady narrative on a personal and galactic scale was just amazing.  All throughout, you could see real effects on what you did, both with the worlds around you, and with your party that you are brought to know and care about on a very deep level.

What I love is that the game had this nice thing where you can do really nice stuff but in a way where you are being the biggest asshole, which can sometimes lend to some absolute comedy gold.  Like in the second game, where you can yell down a bunch of admirals and basically tell them to fuck off, and still get Tali to not be exiled.  It’s awesome.  And if it weren’t for the fact that Morinth won’t come to my party, I’d have totally let her come instead of Samara.  I’m talking about the Citadel DLC, for those who are wondering.

Then we get to the end of the last game.  Everything after when the Victory Fleet goes to Earth.  And that’s where the game just DIES.  I do mean everything.  Nothing about when the Victory Fleet goes to Earth is fun.  Not one thing.  I built up a massive fleet!  I want to see what I got!  I want to see the Geth and Quarians.  I want to see the Turians and Asari.  I want to see the remains of the Batarian fleet coming out and being eager to start a fight.  I want to see Aria’s mercenaries.  I want to see krogans riding kakliosaurs riding into battle.  I want to go to battle with all the assets I had built up over so much time, and have every decision affect who lives and dies on a galactic scale!  What’s the point telling me about how I let Jack’s students become biotic artillery if I can’t see them in action!  I want to watch them fuck up the Reapers day!

The trailer for the game showed your fleet fighting it out on Earth, and that being central to the plot.  Yes!  That!  Let’s see how bananas this can get!  Let all of the decisions I made, from letting the Council live or die at the very beginning of the franchise, to which central characters I lost along the way factor in to the final battle.  To do that would be a monumental undertaking unlike anything seen before.  But it can be done.

A lot of gamers blame Bioware for how this all ended.  It’s not their fault.  It’s EA’s fault.  They were pushing hard for Bioware to get the game out the door before the new console generation dropped.  If EA wasn’t such a shit-storm of a company, maybe we could have gotten the ending that we deserved.  Where there aren’t just three color-coded paths to the end, but a plethora of challenged that you can pass or fail.  This franchise was poised to be the hallmark moment in a genre, instead it smashed its face on the floor sliding into the finish.  That sucked.

Until Dawn

This game had a fantastically simple premise – keep seven people alive until dawn.  Every choice you make factors into who lives and who dies.  Failure means losing one more person.  The first time I ran through the game, I had one person die.  But I never lost another.  This game was phenomenal.  How a studio who had never done anything like this before was able to get this done baffles me.

Unlike Mass Effect, this game was a very small story, but devoted equal parts to character development and relationship development vs plot development.  Because this was a very small game, and the punishment of your choice was pretty clear – people die.  You succeed in the game by living.  The ending will ultimately play out the same regardless of how many people live or die, but you are able to feel the consequence as the credits roll and the characters who survived are being grilled.  It’s good stuff.

Each choice you make in the game is as consequential as the in-game context that you are doing whatever you are doing in.  You choose to save Ashley when you have the choice of who to save and who to let die, it immediately sets your relationship up with Chris.  I liked those two, by the way.  They are a very cute couple.  When I got the best ending and the two kiss, it felt earned.  So many choice-based games tend to drop the ball with romantic elements.  Mass Effect 2 comes to mind.  That game had a bad habit of having characters in your crew who fall in love with you seemingly out of the blue.  It’s bizarre.  And since you get virtually none of them back in your crew in the following game, it doesn’t matter.

One nice touch in Until Dawn was the fact that the items you chose to examine and analyze comes back into play.  That was a really smart touch that went a long way for me in helping make the game believable.  It is similar to how things worked in another game that we will see later on in this list.

Now we get to one that I have a lot of things to say about.

Life is Strange

This game had the makings of something truly amazing.  An episodic game that had the potential to be the kind of Twin Peaks/ Indie film of the video game medium.  That aspect made me respect it.  For the first four episodes, it truly did feel like it was leading up to something spectacular.  Your choices don’t have massive consequences, but you can see the progression of all your actions as you go along.  Then it comes down to the end.  Ugh…

I’ve harped on this ending before, so I’m not going to go over all of it now.  Suffice it to say, if you thought the ending of Mass Effect 3 neglected your choices, you ain’t seen nothing.  That game gave you three color-coded options to make all of your choices count for nothing.  This game gave you two.  That’s right, two choices, and no matter what you did prior, it all ends exactly the same.  I just don’t get how this happened.  Here is my belief, and it comes into play in the last game on this post too – they wrote themselves into a corner.  Either that, or they didn’t have the budget or resources to make the last episode bigger.  See, to truly make your choices matter, and to pay off things like the tornado being a representation of countless timelines that Max created paying off, they would have had to devote so much more resources into the final episode.

Part of me gets that it’s hard to end a choice-based game.  To have meaningful payoff for the countless choices that every player would have made, it must be an astronomical undertaking.  But here’s the thing – if you are going to make a game like this, I think it’s on you to do it right.  The player is owed that.  People say that us gamers are entitled babies, and sure, sometimes we can be.  But this company decided to take the effort onto themselves to do this.  We didn’t tell them to.  They didn’t have to.  It could have just been a game like Gone Home, where you have to roll play through another story.  I just know that somebody will come into the comments and say that it is just like that game.  It’s not.  They chose to make this game one where the player is told that their actions will have consequences.  Being able to track those consequences and do it well is a massive undertaking.  Any game company who wants to play at that owes the player a satisfactory resolution.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Boy did this game really have so much fantastic moments where it rose above being derivative, only to crash and burn at the end.  The last episode of this game has two thirds that are just great.  It opens with Rachel acknowledging the closeness that her and Chloe share if you built them up as a couple by holding her hand and asking her to stay when her father is going to tell her the truth.  You have a moment where Chloe faces down her demons about losing what matters to her when Rachel is stabbed and she has to rush her to the hospital and show that she understand just how serious this was.  Then, everything that follows that scene is where it all goes to shit.

The last third of this game takes how the previous game gave you two choices that nix all of your choices before, and switches it over to one.  The final two choices you can make are ultimately meaningless.  No matter which you chose, nothing changes.  I said in my review of the last episode that I think it came down to them wanting to keep to the canon of the game that chronologically follows, and that is still true, but they also had to write a resolution to a story with more characters than it realistically needed.  Or it could have just chosen not to have payoff.  As an example, everything that happened at Rachel’s house could have been nixed.  No, should have.  It served no purpose.  We already knew that Rachel’s dad was doing some underhanded stuff to keep her biological mother way.  Now we need to have a subplot come out of nowhere about him being straight-up evil and wanting her dead?  And even to be helping a criminal get off scott-free in the process?  That’s retarded.

Nixing that plot would also have nixed the even worse final confrontation with Eliot.  Instead of having his plot end there, it could have ended with him meeting up with Chloe at the hospital.  They have been playing with him having feelings for her and you either being kind to them or not as the player.  It could have paid off with you making the final choice of what you want between them.  No big, right?  They could easily have kept this in canon with the game that follows this by having it just be another relationship that Chloe could eventually shrug off as her and Rachel got deeper into the drug game.

Finally, the last confrontation at the mill was stupid and didn’t need to be.  This game should have ended with Chloe finding Rachel’s mom and trying to convince her to come meet her daughter.  It’s simple, it can factor in your choices in how close you have gotten with Rachel by having your relationship play into the argument between them.  How the last episode got so poorly handled baffles me.  I thought I knew the reason why it crashed and burned at the end, but the truth is I don’t.  I really don’t.

Conclusion

Choice-based games are hard.  That’s the thing to take away.  I don’t think a developer should take on something like this unless they are ready to really go the distance with it and not half-ass.  We’ve see it done well, and done poorly, and in some cases coming so close to greatness that it bugs me to see it fail.

What do you think?  What games do you think did it well and which ones did not?  Let me know in the Comments

Until next time, a quote,

“Choice.  It all comes down to choice.” – Neo, Matrix Reloaded

Peace out,

Maverick

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The Relationship Development Issue in Gaming

You know what I hate – when a series of games allows me to develop relationships, yet it feels like they aren’t complete by the end.  Or there is something flawed in them.  I’m going to be talking about two examples here, but there are more.  Lots more.  See, for whatever reason, game developers have a gift at making games where the relationship is developing really nicely, but then totally botch it later on because you don’t see real development.  For my two examples, I think there are different reasons, but I think it is something worth addressing.  Let me get into my examples.  That will help illuminate what I mean.

Mass Effect

In my initial run of this series, I had Shepherd going after Liara.  They were a totally cute couple.  Femshep was my character of choice, namely because Jennifer Hale had 1000X more personality than the guy who did male Shepard’s voice.  I don’t know why they picked so bland a guy, but he was dull as dirt.  Femshep was an interesting character.  And the romance between these two was cute.  I genuinely like both characters, so I wanted to see them together.  For the first game, the development of their relationship really felt genuine.  Liara doesn’t understand humans, so her bond with Shepard feels very exploratory for both of them.  Her being an alien is addressed as well.  It’s neat stuff.  We get to learn about her species and her character at the same time.

The second game rolls around, and this felt really good.  When you see Liara again, she’s become someone else.  The time apart has had a real effect on your relationship.  There is real distance that you are unable to address.  I like that when you see her again, she wordlessly says something to you and there is intimacy before she has to shut it down.  Then you get the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC, and the distance between them is beautifully addressed.  I genuinely loved that.  The way the tension builds and builds until it all blows up and she acknowledges the feelings that were always there is just fantastic.  But they also address the reality that what Shepard is involved in is violent.  He/she could be killed at any moment.  That’s hard when you want to build a future.

Then we get the third game, and here is where my gripes come in.  Shepard has been incarcerated for months, and then are reunited with Liara on Mars.  That should have been a very intense scene.  A lot of emotional outpouring should have happened.  But it’s fine.  I can handle the little gripes.  My biggest gripe is that it really feels like the game is sending you back to square one with their relationship.  Why?  After having been together for years, these two should really be in a place where they are looking at their future and thinking about something more.  Liara talked about it at the end of the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC.  She wanted to know what Shepard was hoping for with their future.  Now here you are, and she asks if you want to pick up where you left off.  Of course I said yes.

And yet, from that dialogue, it feels like you two are distant again.  Why?  You just said that you wanted to continue where you left off, after having addressed building a romantic future between you.  Shepard even joked about marriage and making babies with her.  So why does it feel like I’m having to win her back?  There should be more closeness between them that was tragically missing in a lot of scenes.

I said that I believe I have an explanation for why.  Here’s what I think happened in this game – they had to leave it open to the player wanting to go another route.  So they give you a chance to set things up with another character.  But see, that makes no goddamn sense.  Because Liara asks you if you want to pick up where things were left.  If you said yes, that should have just locked the player into that arc.  I know it’s cheating player choice, but you gave them the chance to back out.  It’s on them if they chose not to.  To see their relationship grow to something where they are talking about making babies and building a future together, maybe having the last scene be Liara asking Shepard to marry her.  To have that be the culmination of their emotional arc would have been fantastic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it did have some closure in the Citadel DLC.  I really loved how they treated their relationship there.  Still, in a game all about building a narrative journey across three games, that seems like a no-brainer in developing that to see where it ultimately goes.  Would make Shepard’s passing in the end (if you chose one of the stupider endings like taking over the Reapers or the Synthesis ending which is bafflingly stupid) even more intense.  Seeing Liara in a room sobbing as all the chance to see her girlfriend survive is lost.  Of course, if the ending to the series hadn’t been so fucking stupid, we could have had options to have Shepard live.  I’ve already bitched about that enough.  Wrote a whole post about it.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Now, the original game had its own issues with a lackluster ending.  See, the original game had it where the only time the game would acknowledge Max and Chloe’s relationship is if you pick the ending where you let her die.  That bugs me.  But that’s nothing compared to how annoyed I am at this game.

See, the crux of what made this prequel work is building up the relationship between Rachel and Chloe.  You had to be careful how you set it up.  The wrong things said could derail all the romantic elements you are going for.  I liked that.  Made my investment seem like it was worth something.  Seeing how you go from acquaintances, to how fast these two can fall in love, it wasn’t like some Disney 3-day romance.  Here it feels like two people drawn together by a love that was beyond either of their control.  Which culminated in the second game to them kissing in a scene that was legit wonderful.  Especially after the amazing stage scene I got to have between them where Rachel pretty much says that she has feelings for Chloe in a way where it fits with the play at hand.

But then we get to the last episode.  This bothered me.  These two just made out, and all the momentum is in their relationship.  It felt like they should really be under the spell.  But nope.  The plot got in the way, in all the worst ways.  There were narratives that had to be wrapped up, and this game did it in such a piss-poor way.  It should have ended with Rachel meeting her mother.  Or maybe a plot about Sera being involved in bad things and the game acknowledging that.  Could have left things open for a sequel where the two meet her, and you have to figure out what to do next.  Options are there.

Instead, the game treats them both like they are friends.  The only time they acknowledge what happened in the last episode was via text.  Are you kidding me?!  Young love here, idiots!  Stupid teenager who should be all hormones and passion.  Granted, some serious shit happened with the revelation of Sera’s relationship to Rachel, but this game spent so much time grounding these two’s relationship as the center of the narrative, then totally ditched that.  It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Once again, I think I have an explanation.  See, in the game that this is a prequel to, the relationship between Rachel Amber and Chloe is deliberately ambiguous.  I was at first assuming it is so you can see in this what it was all like.  But since this prequel had to keep to the canon of the original (for reasons I will never understand.  There are so many narrative reasons around that with alternate timelines), it couldn’t let you be definitive about it.  Doesn’t help that I ostensibly set up Chloe to find out that Rachel was cheating on her with Frank.  Ouch.

So what do you think?  Why is it that game devs seem to have an issue bringing resolution to relationships in a game or game series.  Some do it better than others.  The relationship between Chris and Ashley in Until Dawn had some resolution if both of them lived to see the end.  I dug that.  And don’t even get me started about how they fucked the relationship between Femshep and Garrus.  That just bugged me!  Between games should have been nothing for them.  Anyway, that’s my thoughts.  Let me know yours in the Comments.

Until next time, a quote,

I don’t think you can analyze love. It’s the greatest mystery of all. No one knows why it happens, or doesn’t. Love is a chance combination of elements. Any one thing might be enough to keep it from igniting – a mood, a glance… a remark. And if we could define love, predict it – it would probably lose its power.” -Neelix, Star Trek: Voyager

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s Review: Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Episode 3

Ugh.  I don’t know what it is with game creators and stories with player choice.  For whatever reason, it seems that the vast majority of devs who make them find it difficult to end them in a way that reflects player choice.  But I don’t think that was the problem here.  I think the problem with ending this particular game is the fact that it has a continuity that it has to fit into, because it’s a prequel to another game.  And this game gave you the ability to completely break that continuity if you so chose.  Which I did.  I’m going insanely into spoilers, just a head’s-up.  If you don’t like that, get out now.  This episode had other problems too, which I am going to get into.  Let’s talk about it.

Here is a big issue – the first two acts of this game are done with such a mastery that it really blows my mind.  No joke, I was on the edge of my seat and feeling the feels in a big way.  It goes along with the narrative that it was so perfectly crafting.  Which makes the third act of this game and how far it dies that much more frustrating.  But my frustration with the third act comes from other places as well.

This is where I get into spoilers.  So anyone who doesn’t like that is advised to leave now.  For starters, what is the deal with the confrontation with Eliot?  That was bad!  Some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen.  It comes right the fuck out of nowhere!  So I’m just supposed to believe that he is secretly a crazy stalker who has a domestic violence complex when all the events up to now have told me he’s the sad friendzoned guy, based on the choices I made?  That makes no damn sense.  It was conflict needlessly thrown in there to add tension.  Or maybe to justify him not being in the game that follows this one.  I don’t know.  But that entire scene annoyed me to no end.

Next, why was the relationship I was cultivating with Rachel never acknowledged in the end?  That bugged me.  The previous game had Rachel and Chloe making out by my choices.  Why does it not have any amount of emotional intimacy between them.  It really doesn’t.  You could easily make the argument that they are just good friends based on how their interactions go.  Why?  This episodes goes out of its way to not say anything definitive about how their relationship is.  I know why – because of continuity.

And now we finally get into my biggest gripe with this episode – keeping the continuity.  See, here’s the thing: I broke that.  I broke the continuity of the game that follows it pretty damn hard.  With the choices I made, after a genuinely touching scene of David trying to reach out to Chloe, I had her finally choosing to make peace with him and set up a legitimate relationship for the family.  So they were on the path to becoming a real family, minus all the animosity.  Thus helping to set up a psychological balance with Chloe to help her heal.  Next, I put Nathan on the path to becoming a better person.  He had a real friend who was kind to him and treating him like he wasn’t a piece of shit.  That would set him on the path of becoming a better person and not needing Mr. Jefferson for his twisted fantasies.  Lastly, at the very end, I lied to Rachel about what transpired and the truth about her father being a real piece of shit.  That led her to having a very good relationship with her family that wouldn’t have had her and Chloe desperately looking to escape still.  Not to mention, I had set up in the previous episode that they would be heading to New York and not LA.  Since she wouldn’t have been self-destructive, there would be no reason for Rachel to be in Mr. Jefferson’s Dark Room.  Not to mention, since I had built up the relationship with her and Chloe so strongly (at least I thought I had), she’d have no reason for fooling around with Frank.  Unless she decided to cheat on her.

Do you see the problem?  The developers decided that it was better to keep the continuity intact than to allow player choice to dictate how the game goes.  Because, as I said, they had to keep to the continuity.  That’s bullshit!  If you are going to market a game as having player choice, respect their agency.  Yeah, I retconned the lore of the game that chronologically follows this one.  So what?  The original game, ironically enough, is an iron ball around the ankle of this one.  And that is unfortunate.

What’s even more ironic is that there is such an easy way around this!  Just have the continuity errors be Max in the future changing the past.  One of the bullshit endings to the game has it where Max goes back in time and lets Chloe die, ostensibly stopping all of the rest of the plot from happening.  The idea is that if Chloe had died, Max would never have gotten her powers, and none of the events that followed would have happened.  Even though, Max already fucking did that when she went back in time further than the events of the story and told David about Mr. Jefferson’s fucking Dark Room, which should have caused the same result!  Ugh!  I still hate the ending to the original game.  So yeah, if the idea was to stop the events of what followed after Max saw Chloe die, then anything she would do back in time before then to stop the events should work.  In other words, just have a bit where you see Max in Seattle having gone really far back and changing the timeline.  Then you can fuck around wherever you like.  A game with time travel allows for that.  Or have it be an alternate timeline Max created in time travel.  There are plenty of easy ways for this to work, and it doesn’t.

So, do I hate this episode?  I hate the final act, but just like the one that came before, everything leading up to that was pretty great stuff.  I guess you can make your own judgements on it from there.

Final Verdict
First two acts: 8 out of 10

Last act: 3 out of 10

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s Review: Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Episode 2)

Sorry this is a little late.  Been trying to organize my thoughts, and have other stuff going on.  Here’s the thing about this game – it’s kind of a mixed bag.  It’s not the original.  Part of me is impressed that it is not trying to be.  This game was created for one purpose and one purpose alone – to give players the back-story between Chloe and Rachel.  But it does make your choices feel weighty.  That’s one thing I’ll give this iteration that the original really didn’t have – player choice feeling substantial.  Since there are so few episodes, there aren’t a huge amount of choices to keep track of.  So the writing is easier.  Plus, it’s easier to make your actions feel meaningful.  Why am I going so far out of my way to preface this?  I guess it’s because I honestly like this prequel.  This review is going to be a little odd.  See, there isn’t a huge amount of stuff to substantively talk about.  The visuals are still in the same vein, and good.  Hell, even the kissing animation you have access to later on isn’t the worst I’ve seen.  It’s not Mass Effect 2 levels of clipping.

What do I think of this episode?  As I said, the core of this prequel is to explain the growth of the relationship between Chloe and Rachel.  And they got that right.  My favorite parts of this episode are when you see the relationship between the two deepening.  It feels pretty good.  It’s not perfect.  The dialogue is stilted as fucked.  But where this game goes right is making the emotions match the scenes.  You do believe these characters when they’re on stage together and Rachel is poetically confessing that she has a bond with Chloe that goes beyond typical friendship.  That scene is heart-warming.

Here’s my issue with this prequel – so much of this really doesn’t feel like it’s tying in to the story from the original.  It kinda feels like I’m ret-conning the lore of that game.  After all, I have worked hard to make the relationship between Rachel and Chloe feel real.  So if the events of the other game happen as you find out they did, then Rachel is doomed to basically cheat on Rachel with Frank.  Given the passion between them, am I to assume that in the months or years from when the prequel ends the two got distant enough for Rachel to leave her girlfriend and not feel at least a little conflicted about it?

Not only that, you can affect where the two girls are looking to run away to, which plays a huge role in what everyone believes happened to Rachel in the original.  Maybe all of this was developed just for fan service to fans of the original.  Maybe I’m really over-thinking this.  But as someone who genuinely enjoyed the original game, a lot of this plot stuff just rubs me a little wrong.

I don’t know.  Maybe I need to change my perspective.  Instead of seeing this as an extension of the original game, see it as its own story.  Where I a guiding the romance between two characters, one of whom I have really grown to like.  I still love Chloe as a character, along with the voice acting.  As stilted as the dialogue is, at least it feels genuine with all the emotion she puts into it.  I just know somebody is going to call me an SJW for liking this stuff.  This game definitely takes inspiration from social justice talking points.  Thankfully, that shit seems to be from characters in periphery.  Chloe and Rachel are not just walking stereotypes of Tumblr feminists.

One thing I really wanna touch on is the dream sequences.  I really do like them.  Each one has a thematic purpose.  The first is Chloe addressing the death of her father from her family, as more and more of him is being stripped away.  The second was her addressing the pain of having her blossoming relationship with Rachel seemingly going up in flames, while her father is the voice of reason who tells her that she still has a place in her life.  This episode had a really great sequence.  It has William sitting in front of the car he crashed, burning, roasting a marshmallow with the raven.  Really wondering what the raven is meant to symbolize in context of this story.  The butterfly from the original symbolized Chloe as a character.  The raven is a point of conjecture.  Chloe sits and starts roasting a marshmallow herself, and William tells her that watching everything burn is beautiful, but she might be missing seeing what other beautiful things are being hidden from her by her perspective.  We see this come to a point when she acts in The Tempest, with the stars in the sky sparkling like the ones on her outfit.

I also am really liking the new side characters you meet.  There is so much more personality from them.  Having a smaller cast let them give characters much more presence, and it really pays off.  This episode has a conversation you can totally miss but I’m glad I didn’t between Chloe and Steph where you can grow closer or end up hurting her and I went out of my way to be honest about the fact that I had Rachel as where I was setting up the romance between the two.  It led to a genuinely touching moment where Steph says you can talk to her about what it’s like, since she has been open about being gay.  Subtle touches like that go a long way.

One thing I wanna mention is the fact that the walking animation is so fucking weird in cutscenes.  During gameplay it’s fine, but in cutscenes the walking is just so strange.  And the running is even weirder.  Do the people who made this just not know how to animated that?  So odd.

Overall, it’s a good continuance of the story.  Granted, the opening act is painfully slow.  But once you get back to the junkyard, things pick up pretty quick.  I like this story.  With a bombshell having been dropped on Rachel at the end of the episode, I am genuinely eager to see how it plays out.

Final Verdict
7 out of 10

Peace out,

Maverick

LGBT Characters in Gaming

Let’s talk a little history.  I don’t know how many of you were around and conscious of what television in the 90’s was like.  Much like the film industry, it produced some of the biggest garbage in the world.  You had shit like Friends and Full House, both of which got unbelievably popular due to nostalgia that people seem to believe the entertainment was so much better back then.  These people are what people like me call “clinically insane.”  But here’s something you may not remember – the 90’s didn’t always write gay characters very well.  Some of the biggest stereotypes about the LGBT community came into being then.  Now, the thing is that they aren’t negative stereotypes.  In fact, they were overwhelmingly positive.  There is a reason for that.  Maybe it was making up for old negative stereotypes, or people just not being able to write these kinds of characters very well.  Whatever the reason, they were all bad.

Here was the problem – these characters all had a bad habit of announcing that they’re gay to everyone they meet.  They are so damn proud of being gay and they are damn sure going to make sure that everyone knows it.  It was bad writing in the worst way.  All of these characters had a bad habit of the fact that they are gay being their entire life.  It isn’t one facet of it, but every facet of it.  Everything in their lives centers around the fact that they’re gay.  It was lazy, terrible writing that led to some of the most one-dimensional characters we ever got to see.

Time went by, however, and writers were able to get past whatever hangup they had and were able to start writing very rounded gay characters who were characters first, gay second.  They had rich personalities and issues with life that are part of the issues everyone has.  It led to some truly fantastic characters, like my favorite anti-hero, Omar Little from The Wire.

That sure was a long intro to talking about what this post is going into.  Gaming is at a similar crossroads.  What led us here is the fact that a lot of gamers are now part of an older generation.  The average age of gamers is closer to 30 than 20.  It’s become a part of popular culture, and is quickly overtaking Hollywood in telling engaging narratives that people can get wrapped up in.  As such, it’s only natural that we see games taking on more and more adult themes.  Things like the nature of marriage and ’til death do you part (Uncharted 4), the price of fame and losing one’s fame and selling out to greed (Persona 5), justifying evil for the greater good and the redemption that comes with being willing to change (Mass Effect 2 and 3).

Something that comes with writing narratives that are more complicated means having characters that are more complicated.  After all, people are not one-dimensional.  And it also means looking at other parts of life.  Like different kinds of relationships.  It was only natural that the gay community would make an appearance in this medium sooner or later.  Now sure, the core gaming audience is men.  That’s just how that goes.  The CoD games will never tackle this sort of thing.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that narratives involving LGBT characters will typically be niche.

For a medium that has a real problem with subtlety, looking into something like this should be a niche thing.  There’s a reason why.  Let’s look at one of my favorite examples of it being done right and then it being done wrong.

In The Last of Us, you meet a character named Bill.  Bill is kind of a crazy man.  He’s weird, unwell, and has a real problem with Joel’s tiny companion.  Granted, they meet with her smashing a pipe on his arm.  That’s something.  However, as you go on with his narrative, he tells Joel of a person that he had to look after.  At first, he calls him his “partner,” and really doesn’t want to get very specific about him.  There is genuine venom in his voice when he talks about this guy.  What happened between these two?  When you get to a house after escaping the school, you find out.  He’s hanging from a noose that he rigged to stop himself from becoming one of the infected.

It’s here that we see another side of this.  At first, he’s clinical about it.  He’s looking over the body and seeing what happened.  But as you listen to him talk about him, there’s real pain in his voice.  Pain, anger, all sorts of emotions.  It’s a testament to what a good performance the voice actor does how much depth he brings into talking about this guy.  As I was playing this with my gay girly-mate Erin, she had this to say, “they had to have dated.”  To which I asked, “how do you figure?” “Easy, you don’t hate someone this much unless you’ve dated.”  Well put.  Bill lives a life where everything is regimented and safe.  When you find Frank’s letter, it tells of a man who was angry with Bill.  He wanted more from life than Bill was willing to give, and it ended in him leaving.  In his last letter, he says how much he hated Bill and wanted more from life than he wanted to give.

What happened between these two?  We never know.  It clearly must have been a very damaged relationship.  The audience can see some of the history and it’s enough to tell us a tragic story of two men who ended up hating each other because of irreconcilable differences in how they lived.  In a world where love for a gay person must be unfathomably hard to come by, to lose that relationship must have been hard for both of them.  But by the end both of them hated one-another.  It was done so well, and played very subtly.  I love everything about the nature of that relationship.  It also shows a side of Joel.  He figures out pretty quickly the deal between Bill and Frank, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it.  After all, he is a Texan.

Now let’s look at this done wrong.  In Mass Effect 3, you meet a shuttle pilot named Steve Cortez.  He seems like an interesting character.  But there is a stark contrast of narrative quality in his his story plays out, depending on if you have male or female Shepard.  If you have female, it is a very interesting narrative about a man who is getting over the loss of someone dear to him.  If you have male Shepard, it’s a narrative about a gay man throwing his grief away in a nano-second in order to try and jump your bones.  It’s cringe-worthy to say the least.  Since I preferred Femshep because she was a much more engaging character, I was able to see the story done right.

What happened?  I’ll tell you – a narrative had to be spun.  See, we have another player in the problem with writing gay characters in gaming right now – SJWs.  Social justice decided to come in and take over the writing process of this character, all so they could call foul when the gamers were like, “this gay sex scene sucks.  Where did this come from?”  Good fucking question.  He was poorly written in order to spread a narrative and get a subject matter talked about.

This has happened quite a bit.  Gay characters are being written where the fact that they’re gay is their entire personality.  Or now the big one is trans.  Like how Ubisoft created an openly transgender character in Victorian London.  A time when I guarantee NO ONE was open about gender dysphoria.  Yet this character is all about talking about it to whoever they meet.  Or the trans character in Mass Effect: Andromeda, who really had to make a big deal out of this when they have a fuck-ton more things to worry about.

I get why this medium is going to be the hardest to write these kinds of characters in.  The core demographic is men.  That’s a demographic that is going to see this stuff pretty black and white.  Hell, in this insanely divisive culture that we live in, nuance is hard to see on any sides.  This is why I genuinely believe that if we are going to see more and more gay characters, it needs to be first handled in the niche markets, where it can be handled with a deft hand, rather than a stick to beat people over the head with, despite how rarely that deft hand is applied.

But maybe there’s hope.  I just got done with the latest episode to a prequel to my favorite game of 2015 – Life is Strange.  That game already had a very well-done relationship between Chloe and Max, but the real stand-out example of a blossoming romance that I genuinely enjoyed playing was in the prequel.  While it is miles below the original, the thing I can say is that the relationship between Chloe and Rachel that I have been able to help shape feels genuine.  And this most recent episode had payoff to that.  We’ll see if it can keep the trend of well-done character development happen.

*Update: The third episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm totally fucked the relationship between Chloe and Rachel.  There was no payoff.  Zero.  The last episode might as well have pretended their relationship didn’t exist*

The ultimate message of this ramble is that making gay characters should be about making characters first.  Being gay is a part of a person’s life, but it isn’t everything.  At least not if they aren’t these social justice idiots who feel the need to make everything tie back into it.  It’s just one part of who that person is.  That’s how these kinds of characters need to be written.  Make them a character first.  Make gamers like them for who they are, then ease them in.  Just like how straight men can have gay friends who they are cool with, I guarantee that that gay friend knows that he can’t be too in this person’s face with how they are, because they know it would make the other person uncomfortable.

Wow, this seems like a whole lot of nothing, doesn’t it?  Maybe I should have made this a RAB post.  Unsure.  What do you all think?  Let me know in the comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“Do you think there’s a point where you’ve been acting so much that you don’t even have your own personality anymore?” – Rachel Amber, Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s Review: Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1: Awake

I’ve talked at length about how my favorite game of 2015 was Life is Strange.  While it had its flaws, it told an interesting narrative about a girl with time powers and a mystery that unfortunately had a lackluster conclusion.  The outright-terrible ending of the game, however, didn’t ruin the entire experience for me.  I still love everything leading up to it.  It’s kind of like Mass Effect 3 in that regard.  When I saw the announcement for this, I was more than a little pissed.  I mean, why would I want a prequel?  It’s a story I already know!  Rachel and Chloe were tight as fuck, Rachel was secretly in love with Frank, she gets killed.  What more could they fill in?  I said in my First Take post that if this was just some stupid prequel telling us crap we already know and nothing else, I would ream this game a new one in a way that Square Enix would feel.  I’m happy to say that this prequel challenged my skepticism.  It’s not perfect, but for the flaws it has, it has some things done better.  Let’s talk about it.

This game is still a prequel.  Set four years before the events of the original game, we see a much younger and much more vulnerable Chloe.  She’s trying to get into a concert where a band who is weirdly playing the tune of another band (did the actual band not want their name associated with this game?  You’d think they at least would have had to have the song licensed, so why not just play as yourselves?  Odd).  After getting in trouble, it’s here that we see her meet Rachel Amber, the most popular girl in her school.  From there, our young protagonist gets involved in a new life of freedom, friendship, and maybe something more.

There’s a lot to say about this prequel, and it’s a lot of the same stuff one could say about the original game.  For starters, the dialogue is just as bad as the first episode of the last game.  Maybe this is a trend with this game.  I don’t know who their writing staff is, but no teenager anywhere talks like this.  But just like the original game, that grows on you after a while.  It sure as hell grew on me.  So there’s that.

The visuals are much better.  They’re using the Unity engine, and it really stands out.  The faces in-particular.  My biggest complaint with the original game was that the faces were so inexpressive.  Better facial animation would have made some of the best scenes of dialogue even better.  Here, there is much more expression, and it makes the dramatic climax of the episode really good.

One thing I do miss is that the time powers are gone.  Now, instead of being able to rewind and make a choice about whether or not you want to follow through with something, you have to basically own it.  Not gonna lie, that does bother.  You also can’t restart episodes from various chapters.  That’s kinda frustrating too.  Here’s hoping future episodes fix that.  But you do have some new mechanics.  Like this back-talk mechanic that makes no sense in reality but it is kinda cool that you get to play mental games with people.

Let’s talk about the characters.  There are some REALLY weird voice-actor changes that totally take away from characters.  For example – David.  I grew to like him at the very end when you finally see under the hood of his mental problems if you tell him that Mr. Jefferson killed Chloe and he shoots him.  Whoever they got to replace him as a voice actor does NOT sound at all like a torn-up veteran.  The first guy they got was a douche, but you believed he’s a tormented veteran haunted by what he saw.  This guy sounds like a fucking doofus.  There is no presence with this guy.  Same with the dude they got to replace William.  I can at least forgive that because you only see William in dreams.  His weird speech patterns fit with the scenes they are in, but still.

Ashly Burch is back to play Chloe, and I genuinely do like her character more.  It’s pretty clear that the voice actress is older, but the performance feels more genuine.  Stereotypical punk Chloe is cool and kinda hot, but young and vulnerable Chloe is genuinely more interesting.  One of my biggest complaints from the first game was the fact that we never got to meet Rachel Amber, since I assumed that the power Max had has some connection with her.  Thankfully, I at least know that’s right.  But that gets into spoiler territory for this game.

Something I’d like to add is that there is one genuine improvement over its predecessor.  So many choice-based games make it so that the choices feel meaningless.  This episode doesn’t!  There are a ton of variations, little things that change in scenes because of choices you make.  It was surprising when I’d go through the same scenes over again and have them play out differently because of things I’d done.  That’s pretty cool.  It gives me some hope that the decisions I make in the end will actually amount to something.

Overall, this game is about growing up.  It’s about Chloe accepting that her dad is dead and making a new friend and how she can’t deal with how alone she is.  We also get to peek into the life of a character who I always wanted to meet.  But I am glad to see that it isn’t just a prequel to stuff we already knew.  They actually go back even further than recent history and give us some stuff.  We get some hints as to the nature of the supernatural in Arcadia Bay, which I am desperately hoping they run with.  I’m curious to see where this goes, and while I do hate how much Max gets shit on, we have two new characters to see where things go.

Final Verdict
7 out of 10

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s First Take: Life is Strange: Before the Storm Premier Trailer

I’ve made no secret that the original game is my favorite game of 2015.  Aside from the ending, which is stupid on so many levels that it forced me to do a rewrite which is on this site if you want to look for it, I loved it.  The game is truly phenomenal.  And just like Mass Effect 3, I don’t let the fact that the ending is pants-on-head retarded stop me from loving the rest of the franchise.  However, when I heard there was a sequel episodic series coming out, I was more than a little worried.  I mean, where are they going to go with the franchise?  I had games where I both saved and let Chloe die, so are they going to pick up with Max back in Seattle?  Where could this go?  Are we FINALLY going to get an answer to what Max’s power is and how it works?  That’s the biggest question I have after the series so that could be a little interesting.

But today Microsoft decided to unveil the latest season at their press conference.  And…I don’t know what to think.  Let’s take a look at the trailer and then talk about it.

Okay, so we have Chloe, who is one of my favorite female characters of all time, voiced by an amazing voice actress who I also loved in Horizon: Zero Dawn.  She’s in her room, smoking.  I can see the art style is the same, but it does look a lot more detailed.  The facial animations in-particular, which was my biggest gripe with this style.

She’s sitting there, smoking, and we see a raven land on her windowsill.  The previous game had a thing about the blue butterfly that Max took a pic with.  Is that the way it is with the raven?  In all mediums the raven has symbolized death.  A theory just came to me, but I want to keep going before we talk about it.

There’s a montage of things happening, and one of the things that gets my attention is her being in a car with her father when he is hit by a train.  Is that a dream sequence?  If it’s not, then it makes my theory have suddenly a lot more credibility.  There are things like a tree burning, and Chloe climbing the steps of Blackwell Academy with a sign about good luck seniors.  More Chloe being angsty and shit, but always alone.  That interests me.  The previous game made it seem like her and Rachel Amber were nigh-inseparable.

Here’s why I’m worried – part of me is thinking that all this is is just filling in Chloe’s backstory before the events of the game.  Why?  We already know what happened.  That would be stupid.  That would be the biggest waste of time and potential ever.  And the worst thing is that I’m going to buy the first episode to find out.  Because I have to know.  I have another theory, and I’m desperately hoping that it’s true.  If it really is as simple and dumb as what the title suggests, then I am honestly going to be nine kinds of done with Dontnod and their episodic games.

My theory is this – Chloe dies in so many of the timelines that Max has.  Whether it be in the beginning when Nathan shoots her, the junkyard where you can accidentally shoot her while playing with David’s gun, the alternate timeline if you have Max kill her when she asks her too, and at the very end if you choose to sacrifice her.  I always believed that the tornado was the alternate timelines Max created coming together to fuck up reality.  It made sense.  My theory is that this game has Chloe in the nether-space between timelines.  Like a space where nothing is real and she is desperate to escape.  Kinda like the world of the Nexus in Star Trek Generations.  That would be fascinating!  No joke, if they go that route then it makes sense why her reaction at the end where she sees Rachel is one of awe.  Like she can’t believe that she’s actually there.

But I am still worried that this is just rehashing a backstory we already know.  To Square Enix and Dontnod, if that is really the route you go, so help me Groj I will make the longest and most nit-picky post explaining why you are wasting gamers’ money that you have ever seen!  Not that you care, I’m sure, but hopefully my audience will care.  And I’m going to make sure all of you are told as fast as possible.  The first episode comes out August 31st.  Your move, Dontnod

Initial Verdict:
You Have My Attention

Peace out,

Maverick