This week, I reported back from my first couple dozen hours with Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game that I’ve found to be pleasantly dumb but mostly infuriatingly laborious. Judging by this wonderfully written comment, ~Swinton likes it even less:
BioWare’s greatest strengths as a developer have been 1. Its Whedonesque approach to broad, emotive characters banding together as bands of misfit heroes and 2. Its mastery of pacing. Mass Effect 2 is probably the best product they’ve ever made because the entire game is just those two things and nothing else—laser-focus on the team and relentless forward propulsion doled out in discrete 60-90 minute blocks, constantly taking you from spectacular locale to spectacular locale.
BioWare does not do story and thematic resonance as well as Obsidian or large compelling environments as well as Bethesda, but when it focuses on its strengths, it makes compulsively playable games. So I don’t know what the fuck happened here. It feels like Dragon Age 2 on Inquisition‘s budget—a rush job that is nonetheless quite lavish, huge, and also fundamentally empty.
It’s weird to see the critical reaction to this game become so tepid after Dragon Age 2 was so strongly defended, but for all its flaws, DA2 had things this game doesn’t—namely, point 1 from above. Varric and Aveline and even Fenris were characters that clearly had a lot of care put into them, and they grew on you. I’m 12 hours in and Andromeda has no characters. There’s no one who elicits recognition of a real emotion or even a strong response like the disgust and annoyance that Anders and Sebastian and the elven woman provoked. Who are these people? Who are Cora and Liam? Who is Ryder? I don’t know, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them now. It’s ghastly.
Inquisition seemed like it could have been disastrous, a broad and shallow open-world game that abandoned all of BioWare’s strengths, but it turned out to be one of their strongest efforts. The companions were all well-sketched and compelling, and even with big maps and lots of distractions, the core plot propelled you forward and kept you engaged. Andromeda is turning out to be the game that I feared Inquisition would be: an incredible, expensive disappointment.
Luke333 brought up a disappointment of a different sort:
As a gay player, I am so let down. There’s only one non-squadmate male romance (the other is a fling and doesn’t count toward romance), and it “fades to black” with little development. The developers promised so much inclusiveness, then thew us under the bus. It’s a major downgrade, M/M wise. If only I liked girls. There’s plenty of T&A for folks who prefer pixelated women.
Earlier this week, Nick Wanserski dropped by with a review of NieR: Automata, the wild new action game from Square Enix and PlatinumGames. He mused on its “Why the hell not?” mentality, an outlook that makes it as philosophical as it is sleek and ridiculous. Appropriately, it was Kawaii As Fuck who stepped up to go a little deeper into why this approach can work:
There is a “rule of cool” element to the vast majority of Japanese games, anime, manga etc. Stuff like comics, games, animation, and so on are inherently escapist mediums at the end of the day. They can tackle serious issues, they can elicit real emotions, but it’s never going to be quite full on realism that you can get with books and movies. So accepting that it’s a more abstract medium, why not have some fun with it? Why not have your cake and eat it too and sometimes put characters in cool, sexy costumes just because it’s awesome?
I see a movement going around in American media today to take some of the fun out of stuff like superheros, to make them more “realistic”, their costumes more “practical” and so on, which to me is simply taking some of the fun out of it, if you want cinema verite realism from stories about people wearing tights and punching bad guys, or in this case destroying robots with giant swords, nitpicking elements like a character’s costume design is kind of missing the point.
Just to be clear though, not everything has to be “sexy” for sexiness’ sake but not everything has to be opposite either, I hope my point is clear.
Duwease continued that thought:
Absolutely. I can lose myself in fun, absurdist, high-energy fantasy just as much as I can lose myself in a no-frills, unflinching portrait of reality. But when the two start mixing is when I start getting pulled out of the experience. “Wait, how is that possible? That makes no sense. I’ll just not take this too seriously. Wait, now I’m supposed to care about this tragedy? I thought I was not taking it seriously? PICK A CHOICE.”
Granted, games typically get a pass on this from me because it’s near impossible to not experience ludonarrative dissonance between the gameplay (which generally involves an absurd scale of super-powered mass murder) and the storyline. I’ve learned to compartmentalize the two. But when the two poles pull at each other during the story segments, for some reason I can’t accept it. And I don’t do well with it in books, movies, or comics either.
Yesterday, Clayton Purdom shared some of his thoughts on Everything, the new game from Mountain designer David OReilly where you’re able to control anything you see. There isn’t a particular goal or narrative to it, just goofiness, exploration, and introspection. It even has an auto-play mode where you can just watch stuff happen. This got Clayton thinking about other games where the experience, not necessarily the structure or progression, is essential, and he wondered whether titles like Flower and Journey might be well-served by a similar auto-play function. Down in the comments SeedyC reflected a bit on thatgamecompany’s work:
The comparison with thatgamecompany’s games at the end of Clayton’s article only confirmed my increasing sentiment while reading the review that I would enjoy this game a lot. The concept and auto-play function sound amazing. Having just finished Flower (for some reason called Flowery in my region) and Flow in the past month, the well of emotions they bring up in me is still fresh. They reminded me of The Witness as well. You get out of it what you put in. The core quality in all of them is that instead of narratives, they go for a concept and often a certain emotion to accompany them, putting the “experience” central. (Flow=Curiosity, Flower=Tranquility, Journey=Wonder/Beauty, The Witness=Epiphany.)
I’m very thankful and happy to have experienced all these games, and it’s not something I expected to get out of my PS4 when I bought it last year. Now, they’re some of the games I recommend to friends who have a PS4 or are interested in buying one. They remind me a lot of one of my favorite movies, The Tree Of Life, which after watching it, I could only summarize as “a spiritual experience” (being very much aware of how pretentious that sounds but I will go to bat for that quote). That movie was ambitious as hell and has as many fans as haters, which I completely understand. For me, it was the opposite of a cerebral movie. It made me feel on a purely emotional level what it is to live, love, fail, mourn, etc.
That’ll do it for this week, friends. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!