Thursday, May 15, 2014

Games About Stuff

I've had this thought kicking around since I finished Mass Effect 3 and didn't want to discuss it for fear of spoiling things. But the science fiction trilogy concluded a while ago and I figure I ought to get these thoughts out before they slip beyond the horizon of cultural relevance.

You may recall a great deal of anger about the ending of Mass Effect. I'm sympathetic to people's frustrations but also to the designers' desire to end their franchise.

I think people approach stories (including story-heavy games) in two different ways. Some people are in it for the story and some people are in it for the world. People also care about the characters, but the way most writers make stories, characters fall into two types: story-characters (who undergo fundamental character changes across the narrative, like Luke Skywalker) and setting-characters (who remain basically consistent, like Captain Kirk). Most people don't analyze how they enjoy stories, but I see people gravitate toward one type of story or another based on their preferences, and I've seen people get all kinds of angry when their initial assumptions about the type of story they're experiencing don't pan out.

Mass Effect had that problem. People thought--and some of it was wishful thinking--that Mass Effect was about the Mass Effect setting, and that was a reasonable view to have, because the setting had so much in it: Cerberus and Reapers and the Council and biotics and the Presidium and space pirates and a million other things. And it came as a shock to a lot of people when they learned Mass Effect was really about a single story (Shepherd's decision) and a single theme (the old man vs. machine chestnut). Mass Effect was a game about something, and it also happened to have a universe attached to it. Mass Effect 3 dragged together most of the previous two game's plot elements, from the Genophage to EDI, and showed how they were all the same kind of story.

Mass Effect 3 didn't do a perfect job at that, which is part of the reason why a lot of people were mad: ME3 was far from perfect; its execution was often heavy-handed and clumsy, and it exposed the fundamentally linear nature of Bioware's stories, despite all the writers' attempts to hide that fact. But more importantly, ME3 took people's universe away.

The Star Wars "expanded universe" has been lurching along for almost 40 years now. Almost everything in the EU sucks, I mean, it's worse than bad, it's completely terrible and full of elements so tone-deaf that I wonder how they ever seemed like a good idea. But as a tabletop gamer, I've had an absolute blast running games in the Star Wars universe.

The Mass Effect universe is just as cool (I imagine a whiteboard at Bioware, Day 1 of New Science Fiction Game, with "Universe Just As Cool As Star Wars" written on it and underlined three times), but I won't ever play in that universe because the designers destroyed it. Now, I'm not all broken up about that, because I can build my own settings and there are plenty of ready-made ones, but if I were the sort of person who loved Mass Effect for the universe, ME3 would have been a kick in the junk. No more Omega, no more Alliance, no more permanently-unresolved stories about the Krogan vs. the Salarians or the dangerous Batarians and their hatred of humanity's success.

But...Some of these desires, I think, are toxic to creativity. The Genophage was interesting for 2 1/2 games; dragging out the angst interminably is what makes superhero comic books so unreadable. Ditto the Batarians. And I think it's naive to expect that the "real story" of Mass Effect is Shepherd and his/her friends fighting Batarian gangsters forever. We all knew ME was going to be more than that, and anyone who knew the first thing about science fiction could see in what direction the plot was going to go.

Further, I kind of respect the designers for blowing up the universe. "No, Mass Effect isn't a setting that gets played out forever, that gets cluttered up with fanfiction-level content after ten years, that slowly spawns an incomprehensible and labyrinthine continuity that alienates all but hardcore fans; Mass Effect is a story about one thing and when that one story is done, the curtains come down." It takes integrity to do that, and it takes a firm understanding of what your story is about.

It's just a shame that what Mass Effect was about was handled so clumsily. But that's an issue of game design, which is outside the scope of this undirected musing. I respect what Bioware tried to do, but I think that, in their attempt to close off the universe, they closed off the story too, and gave us a strangled whimper to conclude their narrative. I don't want to mess around in the Mass Effect universe forever, with the setting's dramas frozen in time for my eternal savoring, but I wanted more of a decision about how I brought down the curtains.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No Justice in Westeros

It's cool how Game of Thrones is anti-chivalry propaganda, and people like talking about that, but T.H. White's The Once and Future King was anti-chivalry propaganda a million years ago, so I don't think that's the coolest part of GoT.

The coolest part of Game of Thrones is that Martin thinks through the consequences of living in a society without a rule of law. Fantasy writers screw that up all the time. They either give their setting a robust rule of law (a legitimate choice, but one that often sticks out weirdly from the rest of the setting), or they don't follow through on the whole "these people are barbarians" thing.

By "rule of law" I mean the understanding most of us modern people have that laws come from, well, laws (fixed rules written down somewhere) rather than directly from our rulers. We know that ultimately law comes from the threat of force, but we place buffers and cushions between our leaders and the application of their power, because the alternative is tyranny or anarchy. (You can usually spot political lunatics because they try to strip away the barriers of intermediation: they try to give everyone guns and banish fiat currency, for example. They want to get rid of the barriers and let power flow directly, and most people instinctively recoil from that.)

Westeros is a setting without as many layers of intermediation as our own world, and the buffers between the people who wield raw power and the people who suffer it are vanishing one by one. Westeros hasn't had the rule of law since Joffrey offed Ned Stark. Or since Jaime Lannister killed the Mad King. Or since Robert Baratheon fought a rebellion against the Targaryens. Or since Aegon the Conqueror showed up and decided that since he had dragons, he deserved a kingdom...

...Okay, Westeros has basically never recognized "law" as most people today understand the concept. It's all people wielding power directly. That's why the rift between the Starks and the Karstarks was so disastrous to Robb's hopes of winning the Iron Throne, and while it's easy to dismiss the Northerners as a bunch of pseudo-Scottish barbaric clansmen, the South is no better: North or South, power is just a bunch of rich families.

George RR Martin, unlike most fantasy authors, actually follows through on the promise of his setting, like a hard science-fiction author. He doesn't even use magic as the primary source of disintermediation. Obviously people who wield magic make it hard to have a rule of law (what do zoning ordinances matter to someone who can conjure castles and demons from thin air?), but Martin uses that trick sparingly. Instead he just shows the consequences of his setting's assumptions, without chickening out. Martin doesn't have a suspiciously modern senate moderating the excesses of kings; he doesn't have a bunch of barbarians re-create the United Federation of Planets; he doesn't even give you the solace of a modern-thinking viewpoint character looking smugly down on the savages (Tyrion may be ethical, but his ethics are purely interpersonal; he's no Seneca). People credit Martin's unflinching look at the cruelty of Westeros as his story's most interesting feature, but Martin's greatest strength is his meticulous exploration of a world with one key difference: not the magic, not the seasons, but the lack of law.