Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Judging by its Cover

November 24, 2021

I had to run an errand a little while ago, and decided that while I was out there I’d take in a short shopping run, hitting stores that I hadn’t hit in a long time for things that I had only been buying from Amazon.  So I hit a bookstore, the video game store, and a store to look for DVDs.  Now, as it turns out I wasn’t really in the mood for shopping, and so only ended up getting one thing, which was the one thing that I pretty much knew that I was going to get, which was a copy of “Persona 5:  Strikers”.  Of course, I have no idea when I’ll actually play it, but it’s a Persona game so of course I was going to buy it at some point when I didn’t have to drag someone to unlock a case to get it out for me.

Anyway, despite my not actually buying much the browsing was pretty revealing.

So I started at the book store, and was browsing around in the science fiction and especially in the history sections.  What I’d do is look at the cover of a book whose title and cover image appealed to me, and then pick it up and look at the back cover for a description of what the book was about to see if I would be interested in it.  There were a couple of books — especially in the history section — where I was somewhat interested in them but wasn’t interested enough in them for the price I’d have to pay.  But in general I could get a good idea what the book was about from reading the back cover (or sometimes the inner flap).  So the pretty pictures and interesting titles of the books were drawing me in and the back cover was giving me enough information to see if I really wanted to buy it or not.

Contrast that to the video game store.  I was browsing the Switch and Playstation 4 sections, and especially in the Playstation 4 section there were a number of games where the title and cover seemed interesting, and I’d go and look at the back cover and … end up having no idea whatsoever of what the game was actually about.  I might get a few short sentences talking about the plot, and a few blurbs highlight the wonderful things it does, but I had no idea what the gameplay was even like (ie whether it was turn-based or real-time combat, for example) or what the story was about.  This was despite the fact that the base price for console games is much, much higher than that for books.  They start above the price I was rejected the books at.  I noted to myself that in order to actually feel comfortable buying one of them, I’d have to go away and do research first to get an idea of what the game was like.  That can’t really be what they’d want because if I leave a store, even if I remember which of them was interesting and look them up later, I’m not that likely to go back to the store to buy it immediately, and am not likely to remember which of them I liked when I finally do manage to get back to the store.  The point of the cool covers and titles on a store shelf is to draw the interest and tap into a desire to buy the game then and there.  If there isn’t enough information on the back cover to fan that desire into the flame of purchase, then that cover is itself utterly wasted.

Things didn’t used to be like that.  You used to be able to look at the back cover of a game — even a console game — and get a general idea of what the gameplay was like so you could decide if it was a game you wanted to play and therefore was a game you wanted to buy.  While the information was often not as detailed as you’d get on a book or DVD, you’d still get enough information to make a purcahse most of the time.  The way things are now, covers are pretty much sabotaging the storefronts, because unless you know what you want to buy you can’t find out enough information while browsing to buy anything, but if you know what you want to buy you might as well buy it online.  This doesn’t seem ideal.

(As a final aside, I did buy “Conception II” from a storefront after doing research on it in-store.  But there was enough information on the cover to get me thinking that it was a Persona-style game, and I had to do the research because of the information it gave me, as I wanted to find out what the combat was like since it advertised it as a kind of turn-based/real-time hybrid and I wasn’t sure I’d like it).

Damn You Shamus Young!

November 17, 2021

So as regular followers of this blog probably already know, I’ve been having a very difficult time finding time to play video games lately.  I have a rather lengthy vacation coming up — I blame my manager — and am planning to play The Old Republic and Persona 5:  Royal during it, which will be the first major game playing that I’ll have managed to get in for months (I did have some sessions finishing off my Dark Side Jedi Consular in The Old Republic, but those sessions were spaced out quite a bit).  It’s also coming up on January, and I’m sticking to my tradition of redoing my entire schedule on New Year’s Day, which is more important this year because this year given that it’s the first year that I spent the entire year working from home I found myself very disappointed in what I didn’t have time to do this year and really, really want to work out a better schedule to do these things (up until the point where I have to go back to work, of course).  Given that I have an hour+ walk in the morning, though, I’ve obviously started pondering what that schedule might be, and the one thing that I decided on early was that I wanted to find a spot for an MMO, and specifically for TOR.

And then Shamus Young talked about “New World”, and suddenly TOR has some competition.

No, I’m not really interested in “New World”.  When it comes to MMOs I tend to be interested in the setting and “New World” purportedly doesn’t properly build out and reflect the Age of Sail, which is a setting that doesn’t interest me that much anyway.  However, in the comments of that post and in other posts I and others have been talking about the features of MMOs that we liked, and that reminded me of MMOs that I had played for greater or lesser lengths of time, or perhaps not at all but that people were saying were interesting, and I started thinking about whether it would be nice to play some of them again.  Such as:

Dark Age of Camelot:  This is on my list on my favourite games, and combines the three mythologies that I most like:  Arthurian, Celtic and Norse.  And it’s still running.  I liked the realms but didn’t care much for the gameplay, but maybe that’s changed a lot by now.  And even if not it’d still be nice to check it out and see what I think of it now.  Yes, TOR has a better story and DAoC didn’t really have one, but there was a good variety of classes with different gameplay.

Lord of the Rings Online:  I played it briefly, and followed Shamus Young’s Let’s Play of it.  I’ve also recently gotten back into the works a bit by re-reading the books and planning on my tradition of rewatching all three of the movies.  So it might be nice to give it a try again, as at least parts of it might be fun, and it probably deserves more play than I gave it the first time.

Star Trek Online:  Lots of people have said that some of the story and quest lines are really, really good, and I do like Star Trek (at least the older series, being less than impressed with Enterprise, Discovery and Picard).  And it is different than the other MMOs I’ve played.  Maybe I should give it a shot.

Now, I’d be interested in trying one of the attempts to save and resurrect City of Heroes, but I’m still not really sure how legitimate those are and don’t have the time and interest to figure all of that out and deal with any aspects that aren’t really kosher.  And I have no interest in World of Warcraft.  And I didn’t like DC Universe Online enough to pick it up again.  And other than Star Trek Online above I don’t have much interest in trying any MMO that I haven’t already tried, as the worlds didn’t seem interesting enough to catch my attention.  So those are the Big Three.  And there’s only one little problem:

When am I going to get the time to try them out?  Looking at what my schedule is likely to be in the New Year, I would barely have time to play one MMO, let alone three or four.  Sure, the others might be games that I can play for shorter stretches than TOR — I always want to finish a planet before quitting in that one, which takes about four hours — but it would still be difficult to fit them into my schedule.  Then again, if I had a time block set aside to play MMOs that I could count on every week, then I could alternate the games and give them some decent time, which could also keep them fresh.  And it would stop me from wondering about whether I want to play them or not.  So more and more I’m thinking that it might be a good idea to stick a couple on my new system and give them a try.

Or not.  I still have some time to figure that out.  But this all started from Shamus Young talking about MMOs again.  The jerk.

Giving the Player Hard Choices

November 10, 2021

So on a post of Shamus Young’s talking about Prey 2017, a discussion arose around moral choices in games with the idea being expressed to have really meaningful moral choices in a game there must be mechanical differences between the “good” and “evil” so that the player is tempted towards one side or another.  If the choices don’t have any consequences for the player, then there’s no meaningful choice at all.  I disagreed with this idea.

A comment by Redrock summarizes the argument pretty well:

You can’t really test the altruism of a character, because characters aren’t real. That’s just asking the player “what kind of character do you feel like playing as today?”. Which isn’t bad or anything, just not the type of experience I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the type of game that speaks directly to the player and aims to trigger genuine introspection. Those games are rare because they should be willing to alienate some players by not being all that fun from time to time.

Which is fine. Movies and books that aim to trigger introspection are rarely pure entertainment too. But I do think that we need more games like that, games that wield mechanics and narrative in equal measures to really push and prod the player.

The problem for me is that the choices they are talking about tend to be moral ones, or specifically altruism vs egoism, but it’s very difficult to test that by appealing to the player, because players have very different motivations from the people in the game or who would be in that situation.  If you are trying, then, to judge or test them based on those choices, you will run into the problem that you have to make assumptions about their motivations, and if you get it wrong and judge them anyway they will get very upset at that judgement.

So, imagine that we take the common suggestion from that comment thread about giving less resources to the altruistic choice, which seems to capture the essence of the altruism vs egoism choice:  give up resources to help others or take the resources to help yourself.  The problem is that players are playing a game, and so when given this choice might take the resources only because they know that they aren’t that good at this sort of game and so would need the extra resources just to finish it.  Or, at least, that they are worried about running out of resources and so want to make sure that they have enough to finish the game.  We know that players will quite often change their behaviour to make their game experience better or to ensure that they have the levels/resources to finish the game given their skill levels.  In most RPGs, my main strategy is to ensure that I’m overleveled and so to grind more than usual just to ensure that the level advantage can make up for any lack of skill that I might have.  I also spent a lot of time in Dragon Age Inquisition exploring every nook and cranny to make sure that I had enough resources and levels to finish the game, even though neither I nor my character were explorers.  Shamus Young criticized the Mass Effect Paragade system for assuming that his Renegade character wouldn’t want the XP rewards from “helping” the other team out.  In general, the mechanics are what the players interact with to play the game, and so we will do a lot of things that we find odd or out of place just to play the game.

So if we are looking at the mechanics and thinking about things in a mechanical way, and we are presented with one of these “altruism vs egoism” choices, what are we likely to do?  We are likely to think of it as a mechanical choice and work it out to the best mechanical outcome for us.  We are, therefore, quite unlikely to think of it as an altruism vs egoism choice at all.  So if the game then turns around and later judges us as altruistic or egoistic on the basis of that choice, we are likely to react with indignation.  After all, that was a mechanical decision not a character decision.  All I was doing was engaging with the mechanics to set things up so that I can best interact with and enjoy the game mechanics.  Unless the game makes it a character choice, then I’m not going to treat it as one.  But then if it is made into a character choice then I’m likely to judge it on the basis of the character that I’m actually playing, which may not be me but may not be.  So then aiming a judgement at the player for something their character did will fall flat as well, as they will either pass that criticism on to the character, or else will be annoyed at the game for not understanding that the player and the character are not the same person.

The issue with giving mechanical penalties or rewards for these sorts of choices is that these sorts of choices, to be judged altruistic or egoistic, have to be cast that way inside the world itself.  Even in the example in Shamus’ post, the altruistic or evil choices are framed around events in the world and relationships that the character has.  If the player becomes convinced that there are going to be meaningful mechanical consequences to these choices and are worried about the impact that might have on their gaming experience, then that will cause a separation between the character and the player.  The character might well take the altruistic choice and be able to feel confident that they can win even with the loss, but the player may feel that they need those resources to complete the game or at least to be able to have fun playing the game, and they are playing the game to have fun.  So that will cause the player to stop thinking in terms of the world and start thinking in terms of the mechanics, and then that link to the world will be lost, and so it won’t be thought of as a moral choice anymore, but instead as a mechanical choice akin to what ammo and weapons and armour you buy and equip.

I submit this:  if you’re thinking that you need to add mechanical consequences to get people to think of a choice as a properly moral one and feel the moral pull of it you have already lost, because what has already happened is that the player has stopped thinking of your world as a world and is instead thinking of it as a playground.  If they were really immersed in your world, then they’d feel the choice as their character would feel it, and if they are playing as themselves it would wrench them sufficiently even if there’s only an appearance of a loss, in much the same way as when we are immersed in an ongoing TV show we happily ignore that some plot points are a foregone conclusion because the other option would remove the entire premise of the show, or how in horror movies we’ll ignore stupid decisions made by the protagonists if we are sufficiently immersed in their plight.  If the player feels that there aren’t real consequences of their choice here, then they are at this point quite aware that the game world isn’t real … and, at that point, they aren’t going to think of this as any kind of moral choice at all, no matter what mechanical consequences are foisted on them.  So the trick is to keep the player thinking in terms of the world, not in terms of the game.  And mechanical consequences always make them think in terms of the game.

Musings on The Old Republic and AAA Games

October 15, 2021

So, I took Monday morning to grind my way through the end of my Dark Side Consular run in “The Old Republic”.  Now, for the longest time — especially since they changed the XP awards so that you don’t need to run as many quests as you used to — what I’ve been doing is running the Class quests and the Planet quests because while some of the sidequests were interesting the quests that have the best narratives are those, and I’m really into the narratives.  So I end up running through those which means that instead of it taking me about 3 hours per planet section — and there’s about four or five sections per planet — I can now do the entire planet in about 4 hours or so, which means that I can get through a run a lot quicker, especially since in general I’d only have about 4 hours to play a game and the reason I have those time numbers is because they represent really good places to stop playing for a day, so what this means is that I’ve reduced the amount of days it will take me to finish a run in TOR significantly.  Which is good.

But something struck me while I was finishing this run:  the game originally advertised itself as KotOR III – X, and it actually is.  If all you do is play the Class stories and the Planet stories, you get an RPG that maps pretty well to what you got in those games.  There are 13 planets in a typical run (if you skip Ilum, as I always do), so that gives a playtime of 42 hours for me, plus the time for missions in-between.  Narratively, the Planet stories can be less detailed, but they often have about as much content as the Class stories, and the Class stories have about as much content, it seems to me, as KotOR had.  They certainly have more content than Mass Effect 2 did.  Arguably, Dragon Age Origins has more story than those games, because that one was more expansive in its story while these ones tend to be more personal, but then the fact that they are more personal makes them different, not less.  You get as much interaction with your companions as you get in the other games, excluding the specific companion quests that are most noticeable in Mass Effect 2.  So, yeah, it’s pretty reasonable to say that what they did was create eight different RPGs that you can play, and had two different faction sets of quests that did align with each class.

And then I thought that if they hadn’t done this in the MMO model, we likely wouldn’t have got anything like this ever.  We might have gotten 3 and 4 and maybe 5, but we wouldn’t have gotten all of these, and gotten all of these in one package, and all of these being interconnected (an Empire-side character can undo the work the Republic-side character did in rebuilding Taris, for example, and a Republic-side character can free Corellia after the Empire-side character participated in taking it over).  Part of this is that this sort of interconnected model is foreign to the single-player model, so even if they tried to release these things as separate expansions players would balk at playing the same Planet quests again to complete a new Class story, which I have to admit is how I would have felt until playing TOR so much.  But a bigger part is that without being able to appeal to the steady income stream of an MMO there’s no way they could have afforded to do this.  The TOR world is way too big for a non-MMO to manage.

Now, for me I’ve always played MMOs on the basis of world and narrative than on the basis of, well, the MMO aspects.  I played Dark Age of Camelot because I liked the mix of Arthurian, Norse and Celtic legends with different classes and worlds.  I played City of Heroes because I liked the superhero world.  The reason I bounced off of World of Warcraft was because I never played any of the strategy games and so had no connection to the world.  I play the MMOs because they provide something that I can’t get in a single-player game as there haven’t been any that have done that.

And what I’m realizing here is that the reason we don’t get things like that in single-player games is because single-player games simply can’t afford to do that.

Dark Age of Camelot would be three single-player games, and there wouldn’t be the interconnectivity but they would instead be different games effectively with the same engine.  If they tried to link all three of those myths into one game, it would have far fewer classes and individual quests than DAoC had.  It would, therefore, be much smaller.  Or else it would be three games like we saw with Mass Effect and Dragon Age.  That’s because the work required is enough for three games but they’d need to make sure that they generate enough income for three games, which was less of a concern for an MMO hoping for a steady revenue stream.  And the same thing applies to CoH.  The reason we haven’t seen a superhero game anywhere near the scope of CoH and Champions Online and so on is because it’s too much effort to do for the revenue that they could expect from a single-player game.  They simply can’t afford to make a single-player game as good as CoH.

Which leads me back to talking about the cost of games, which I talked about before in reference to a couple of videos by Extra Credits.  On the one hand, it’s really difficult to get customers to pay more for a game to cover the costs.  If we say that the price of a game is $60, then people are not going to pay about $500 for what The Old Republic delivered.  Paying $10 – $15 a month for a game at least feels different, especially if they play the game constantly.  And even that model failed prompting the rise of Free-To-Play MMOs.  But gamers also resist paying subscriptions for a single-player game, unless they feel that content is being constantly added.  Could they drift towards adding new stories/requests as DLC/expansions?  I do see some games on GOG trying that model, but am not sure if we’re getting to the level of game of TOR (some of the open world strategy type games might be getting there).  And I’m not sure that people will jump to play those games until most of the expansions are out, which would make them risky.  So maybe for games like that we still need MMOs to provide that for us.  Except the MMO bubble has kinda burst and while there are a couple of new ones out there, there just aren’t as many new ones coming up.  That being said, the old ones still seem to exist and still seem to get updated, which might cover a lot of this, but then it’s very, very difficult to play more than one MMO at one time.

Which, then, kinda puts a damper on this model, because if a company came up with a game that was constantly being updated and had lots of content and could generate constant income from that, they’d dominate their competitors because the people would be too busy with their game to play the others.  We have seen this a bit with the Elder Scrolls games and those strategy games I mentioned:  often, players recommend one of them to others because that’s the one they play and so which one someone ends up playing ends up being the one that they were recommended or picked up first and they have little time to play the other games available in that space.  That was one thing I was worried about with MMO saturation.  And if, as I’ve already opined, that I could play TOR exclusively just by playing all the Class stories over and over and over again, then a game that did this really well could end up getting its income — as long as it’s producing new things if it isn’t subscription based — but take that income away from everyone else.  This isn’t like streaming where the main block is money per month, but the main block here is time and interest.  If the game really is just want they want to play, why would they play anything else?  For streaming services, things are divided enough that they tend to be missing something interesting if they only have one streaming service (even if they watch one most of the time) and the big block is how much money a month they have to spend on TV (because it being there when they want to watch one of those shows will always be a benefit for them if worth it), but here if the game is providing the fun they are unlikely to sign up to another one because they are unlikely to ever decide to play a game of the same type.  They are far more likely to want to progress in the game they’re playing, or else want to play something different.

At any rate, I don’t have any answers here, but it is an interesting issue.  That being said, I don’t find modern RPGs as being hugely underwhelming in their content — I still love Persona 5, and the only problem I have with it and the big problem I had with Dragon Age Inquisition is where they had too much content — so it doesn’t seem like the MMO model is ruining me for single-player RPGs.  So while I might like a single-player RPG with that amount of content, maybe I can live without it … as long as I can get that in at least some MMOs.

My Personal RPG History

October 11, 2021

So as I’ve noted before, recently I’ve been reading the playthroughs at the CRPG Addict which has been getting me thinking about my own history with RPGs and the like.  What has most inspired my thinking about this is that the CRPG Addict talks a lot about Ultima, both the original game series and the Age of Enlightenment games, and talks about how influential and often how great even the original games were, and I remembered that I actually had an Ultima game — maybe even the original — for the Commodore 64 and … never played it.  I didn’t care for it.  I didn’t really enjoy the “wander around an openish world and do things model” that it employed and so never got into it.  And so despite ending up being someone who plays RPGs pretty much exclusively, I turned my nose up at one of the classics of the genre and at the time didn’t particularly play RPGs — at least as defined by the CRPG Addict — at all.  So how did I get here?

The first gaming system I played on was the Atari 2600, which didn’t really have much that looked like an RPG.  And yet I think that even here the things that would get me into RPGs eventually were already starting to show.  I was already enjoying and getting fascinated with story, enjoying the Raiders of the Lost Ark game and the first Swordquest game that built a story around the mechanics.  While I think that Raiders did that really well, Swordquest didn’t do so well with it, but I was already getting more drawn into games that had a narrative around them over simple games that didn’t (although I did enjoy the simpler games and simulation, some of which were quite fun and quite well done).  A good narrative would get me more interested in a game than a promise of good gameplay would.

Then, later, I got my first computer, a TRS-80 Color Computer 2.  Again, not much there, but I was again drawn to narratives even if the game didn’t really take advantage of them.  I played Dungeons of Daggorath, for example, as well as Bedlam.  Good settings and stories behind the games, again, tended to attract me more than just games that talked about great gameplay, although I had those as well.  But, again, I wasn’t really playing any kind of RPG at that point.

Then, after that, I got a Commodore 64, as noted above, which is where I started getting into RPGs.  I picked up a whole host of games from a teacher at my high school, but again even though one of them was Ultima I didn’t start by playing RPGs.  Instead, the games that most appealed to me that would fit in those categories were Defender of the Crown and Pirates!, games where, essentially, I was actually playing a role and helping to shape a narrative.  The same thing could be said about Infiltrator and even Airborne Ranger, where while they were more action oriented I was still playing a character in a role doing what that character would do.  So the narrative was indeed calling me.

The first real RPGs I recall getting into, though, were the Gold Box games, and particularly Curse of the Azure Bonds.  Which, as it turned out, I also had the book of and had read and so was primarily interested in seeing how they align.  I didn’t like the Eye of the Beholder games, and the only Gold Box game I ever managed to finish was Gateway to the Savage Frontier, but those games were developing my love for RPGs.  And yet, for all I can remember, those were the only RPGs I played, other than dipping into the first Buck Rogers SSI game and, if you consider this RPG-like, the X-Men:  Madness in Murderworld game.  Or Weird Dreams, which was another game where I was put into a role.  And this carried on through my days of owning an Amiga (many of the games listed here were Amiga games for me).  I played these games and some sports games and maybe a couple of adventure and action games, but roleplaying games weren’t dominant for me like they are now.

I really hit my stride with them later.  On the CRPG front, I came across Icewind Dale and thus the Infinity Engine games, and liked Icewind Dale 1 and 2 and didn’t care for Baldur’s Gate.  This led to me getting and playing Knights of the Old Republic and Sith Lords, which became among the first games on any system that I actually finished.  A co-worker recommended the Might and Magic games and while I wasn’t that fond of the RPGs I did like the mix of RPG and strategy that the Heroes of Might and Magic game had, which dovetailed into my playing those sorts of games like Age of Wonders and Disciples 2.  So, again, playing games in a narrative was driving me here, as the problem I had with Might and Magic was that the combats were too difficult for me to get into the story, which isn’t something that was a problem for Icewind Dale and Knights of the Old Republic.  I also got into Wizardry 8 at around this time, which was a game where the combats could be at least long, but the story and characters were prominent from the beginning.

At the same time, I also picked up a PS2, and this started my love affair with the narrative-heavy JRPGs.  The first ones that really grabbed me were Shadow Hearts and Suikoden III, and I can’t remember which of them I got into first (Suikoden III was released first, but that doesn’t mean that that’s when I played it).  So while on the PC I was a little less focused on RPGs, on the PS2 I was pretty much only interested in RPGs except for maybe a sports game here and there.  Thus, what really pushed me into being a predominantly RPG gamer was JRPGs, not CRPGs as per the CRPG Addict.  And why I liked them so much was despite the fact that they didn’t offer as much choice or customization as CRPGs, they also told better stories and were more focused on the narrative.  The CRPGs that I liked the most were also ones that focused on the narrative or, in the case of Icewind Dale and Wizardry 8, were games that didn’t overwhelm their more shallow narratives with extra combat and puzzles and so let me focus far more on roleplaying.

This, then, explains most of my issues with the CRPG Addict and his assessment of the games.  He, from what I can tell, is not a big console RPG player, and I think that JRPGs best embody playing a role in a narrative.  He places great importance on combat and development in an RPG, and I see those things, for the most part, as distractions on the way to developing a good and proper narrative.  What we agree on and what makes us both love RPGs is that we want the games to let us make choices and change and do things in the world as we play our role.  And for me, what I really want is to play that role in the world, which is why I find the Personas to be among the very best roleplaying games I’ve ever played, because while I don’t get a lot of choices in the main quest, outside of it in the Social Link aspects I can control what I do and who my friends are, and so can play a role as the type of character I want to be.  You can’t really get that in any other type of game.  And this also explains why I don’t care for the open world games as much because they are too open, and so there’s no real narrative that I can play off of.  In open world games, I am encouraged to go out and do what I want to do, but what I really want is to go out and do what my character wants to do … and I’d have to do too much OOC thinking to pull that off in an open world game.  With a solid narrative, I only have to think about my character’s reactions to what is being said or happening in the main narrative, and how they want to react to characters and side quests.  Thus, I get to play a role, while in open world games I have to define a role.

And, as it turns out, what I really want is to play a role.

More Musings on RPGs

October 5, 2021

So I’m still reading through the posts on the CRPG Addict while compiling and installing and in long, boring meetings where I don’t need to say anything, and it’s been a bit of a nostalgic ride for me as well, because while he hasn’t gotten into the games where I really started my obsession with RPGs, he is playing a number of the precursors, which reminds me of those games and, at times, reminds me of why I often never finished or even got very far in them.

“Might and Magic” is a prime example of this.  I was introduced to the series with VI, by a coworker of mine (who also introduced me to the Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate games, as well as I think Fallout, which are all games that I never really got very far in.  He also tried to introduce me to Half-Life but I couldn’t find the environment suit to get on with the very first mission and quit).  I loaded it up and tried to play it, but didn’t have a good time with it and so quit playing it.  Part of the problem, I discovered, was that as noted in the earlier installments by the CRPG Addict the combat, even early on, could be quite difficult, and in most RPGs of the era I was hampered by the fact that I hate min-maxing and instead like to create characters with diverse skills and, well, that look like and are often modeled on real people.  So to ditch the charisma of my primary fighter to bump up strength doesn’t appeal to me (this is what scuppered one of my first attempts at Fallout 2, where I created a balanced character and couldn’t beat the ants at the beginning).  So I wandered out for a while and I think had a total party kill, and then couldn’t be bothered to play it much more.

So reading the posts at the CRPG Addict, I was reminded of the game and felt some desire to play it, but was also reminded of exactly why I didn’t like those sorts of games.  He clearly likes the tactical combat far more than I do, whereas I just want to get on with the story.  Talking about grinding and working out an optimal pattern to hit fountains to increase attributes and defenses and the like so that he can take out tougher enemies — possibly a bit earlier than needed — doesn’t appeal to me at all, while he considers it in some ways a very appealing part of an RPG for him.  So it makes me wonder if I could ever play those early games at all, and when he complains at times about not being able to figure out what the main plot of the game is I am fairly certain that that would drive me bananas.  Remember, I’m someone who hopped a Silt Strider in Morrowind, couldn’t figure out what to do, got bored, attacked a guard, got killed, and uninstalled the game.  I am not the sort of player who puts up with not knowing what to do next.

Although, that raises an interesting idea considering the games that I consider the best role playing games from the perspective of role playing.  Sure, the Personas had clear goals, but the other game is “Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII”, which pretty much relied on you setting your own goals.  However, those goals were set inside a context, and so that let me go around and act as my character would act without having to figure out each little quest along the way.  I was part of a city and so under a lord, and they would dictate things that they wanted done and, in general, I’d try to do it, while increasing my skills and building up my own fame and my own life.  Both of the games let me be who I want to be in general while giving me a structure to work with and not making combat too hard or too permanent.  I don’t feel that a lot of the other games really let a player do that, and if they do they make the combat too difficult which breaks immersion.

I still should play some RPGs again at some point.  I still don’t have much time to do that.

Changing an Existing World

September 29, 2021

So, I’ve been reading the entries at the CRPG Addict for a while now, mostly while compiling or in a boring meeting or installing where I need to be around but don’t need to be paying that much attention where having something on the computer to read is really, really nice, and noting that I can only read Shamus Young’s Mass Effect Retrospectives so many times before it would be nice to have something new.  So that’s been working out pretty well, and some of the issues raised in some of the games are interesting as well.

Such was the case with “The Lord of the Rings, Vol 1”, an attempt by Interplay to make games out of the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, unfortunately only managing to make two of them before the series was quietly dropped.  The game adds a lot more quests than existed in the books, but more importantly for this post also allowed the player to do things quite differently than what happened in the books.  Anyone could be made the Ring Bearer.  The player could refuse to add certain characters to the Fellowship, add other characters to the Fellowship, or even get certain characters killed that lived all the way through.  At one point, it was remarked that the relatively poor review scores for these games might have been because fans of the books were upset that the game let players do radically different things from what you could do in the books.

That didn’t make sense to me, because for me the idea that in an adaptation I could do things differently than what happened in the work is a huge bonus.  It was certainly not a negative for me in “Elsinore” that things could work out differently than in the play.  Moreover, one game that I really, really wanted to play but never managed to get was the game of “Nine Princes in Amber”, precisely because it was an adventure game set in a series that I loved that promised that you weren’t forced to follow the plot of the books and instead could try different things and do things differently, potentially for good or for ill.  So, for me, the ability to change an existing world in an adaptation was a huge plus, not a detriment.

Now, I am a bit eccentric, but in this matter I don’t think I’m all that much different from most people.  And when it comes to these sorts of games, what I really want is the ability to follow the original story and, if I do that, have it work out roughly the same, but also the ability to deviate from the story and have things work out in a sensible way if I do that.  So I don’t want the events to be random and so following the path set out in the original story leads to things happening differently, but I don’t want things to be so set that deviating at all from the path always leads to disaster, even if that disaster is made to make sense inside that world.  I want disaster to happen when it would happen, and to be able to do things better than the characters if I can foresee that the outcome would be better.  The reason is that if I’m playing a game in a set world I want to be in that world, and if I’m playing as the main character I want to be them.  So I don’t want to be just following them along — because I could always enjoy the original work instead — but do want to be able to follow them along and do what they did and have it work out, because what they did and how they did things was part of that world, and being able to do things as they did is a key component of that world, and I could never feel like I was really part of that world if I couldn’t do things like they did and have the results be the same.  To allow too much deviation breaks the world, and to allow too little doesn’t let me play in that world and instead forces me to observe it.

This is what is behind my fascination with the various Paradox strategy games, especially “Hearts of Iron”.  I’d love to play historical games where I can make things work out roughly the same as history but also could deviate from history if I put my mind to it.  The general mechanisms usually end up discouraging me from playing them, but in general that doesn’t dull my fascination, but only makes me regret that there just aren’t all that many games that really do that out there that I might find more accessible.  So I think that most fans of a world that is being adapted into a game would love the ability to do things differently, as long as they could do things the same, just like me.

Video Game General Comments

September 6, 2021

So, last week I talked about my frustrations with playing video games, brought on by reading “The CRPG Addict” and remembering all sorts of games that are on that list that I wanted to play at some point.  This pushed me to choose a game from that list to try to play, and also to ponder some general thoughts on what I want to play and how I want to play video games.

Let’s start with the specific first.  I decided that I was going to try to play a Gold Box game, but remembered that Pool of Radiance didn’t have very interesting class and race selections, and so decided to try out the “Krynn” trilogy, starting with “Champions of Krynn”.  That one had left some choices out — like Rangers and Paladins — and from what I read there were some level limits on non-human races for certain things, but I put together a party that seemed like it might work and then if there is a difficulty level chose the easiest one, and started the game. 

And realized that there are a number of things about such games that I didn’t remember how to do and had to relearn.  I couldn’t figure out how to sell items, which is necessary to generate income for the party so that you can buy all sorts of interesting things later.  The menu for the local shop only had a “Buy” option, and not a “Sell” option, so I couldn’t figure out how to sell, since I seemed to recall that most of the time there was a “Sell” option.  After wandering out into the woods heading for a city in case the local outpost wouldn’t buy things, I came across a caravan and couldn’t sell to them as well.  So I abandoned that and went back to the outpost and tried to figure it out.  Eventually, I figured out that I could sell from the “View” menu from “Items” and so started being able to generate money again.

I also had a difficult time figuring out how to rememorize spells that I had cast in battle.  I assumed that when I went to rest the game would rememorize the spells you had, but it doesn’t.  You have to select the spells again and then “Rest”.  The issue I had with that, though, was that sometimes I forgot which ones I had used and so which ones I needed to replace.  What I would end up having to do is go to the “Cast” menu to see what I had left and then memorize the ones I needed to replace.  Although afterwards I lost the bonus spells from my two Fighter/Mages and I’m not sure why.  It could be bonus spells from the initial creation, or else from some environmental effect.  Not sure about that.

Since I took on a Knight, the Knight tithes part of the steel (basically, the money) that they have every time you enter an outpost or city.  When I couldn’t sell things, this was really, really scary to me.  So at one point I had figured out how to trade the steel from that character to others, since they don’t tithe party money, but only the money they have, so leaving them at 0 money before entering those places means you don’t lose anything.  But then when I started my second session, somehow I couldn’t get it to work.  The reason, as it turns out, was that when you select to trade it first asks you who to trade to, but the default for that is “Exit”, which means that what I was doing was asking to trade, selecting the character, and then bailing out on the trade.  I needed to switch to “Select”, and at that point it would let me select how much money to trade.  But it was frustrating for a while.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure that this game will work for me right now, which was really highlighted when I returned to the game a few days later.  It’s difficult for me to remember what I had already seen, and even the starting dungeon was fairly big and had some complexities — at the end of yesterday’s session I went through a locked door and was sent back to the start — that made me a bit confused.  I was able to rest in the dungeon in the last session, which was good because I picked up a couple of people who said that they would have to stay if I left, so I stayed, and being at full hit points from resting was good, although it would mean that I couldn’t level my characters up.  But ultimately I won’t be able to play for a few days and might be able to remember what I was trying to do, but wouldn’t be able to remember everything I explored to ensure that I get everything.  The way to do that would be to create a map as I go along, but that’s not the way I like to play games.  The futzing around for things that I noted above also causes issues because if I leave it too long I might forget the tricks and get in trouble again.  The game does pretty much let me save anywhere which is good but the issue with that is if I’m in a bad spot I won’t want to save in a case where I’ve given myself a huge disadvantage, but saving in another slot runs into issues where I have to remember days later which of them was the one I wanted to continue from, so what I want to do is push through the game until I get to a spot where I think I’m okay so that I can use the “A” slot, which then forces me to play longer than I’d like if I’m not sure.  I like the game, but with this schedule I run into issues with the delay between plays and also the frustrations of the interface and the potential for suddenly difficult combats that could ruin one of my view slots for playing games.  So I might have to reconsider playing this game.

But playing the game and reading The CRPG Addict made me realize something about my approach towards games in general.  I’m heavily a story-based gamer.  I like stories in games, and that’s why I’m there.  That’s what interests me about this game, and interested me about “Curse of the Azure Bonds” (I had read the book and likely trilogy beforehand).  It’s also why I was never interested in “Eye of the Beholder” because that was more of a traditional dungeon crawl without all that much of a story, or at least a case where the story gets put aside for long periods of time while we plumb the dungeons.  It’s also one of my issues with the Elder Scrolls games where the open nature of the world means that that main plot can be minimized and ignored for a lot of it (when playing Oblivion, I actually stumbled across the main plot again while looking for a place to sell my loot).  So what I want in games in general is a good story — or the ability to invent my own good story, perhaps — and the gameplay aspects are things that I put up with to be able to experience a story.  That’s pretty much the reason that I’m generally an RPG fan when it comes to games.  Given my desire for a really good story, I’d be inclined towards RPGs and adventure games.

But reading The CRPG Addict reminded me of how I’m not really a good fit for those sorts of games, mostly because of the gameplay.  The CRPG Addict always talks about how he likes complex and difficult combat, and that’s the thing that will turn me off of an RPG, especially if it ends up being the case that I can’t get past the combat.  I actually ran into a case of that in “Ring Fit Adventure”, where on NG+ it hit me with a “Complete in X steps” area that I was having too much trouble completing and so gave up on.  So one demand from RPG players is difficult and tactical combat, and that always scares me because I worry that I won’t be able to get past that to complete the game.  On the other hand, adventure games also have stories — although tend to be less personal — but they are based around solving puzzles to advance, and I don’t find that gameplay all that interesting and also fear that I’m going to be unable to solve on and get stuck (although walkthroughs help with that, at the cost of taking me out of the game (I’ve talked about help systems before).  Both of these things are things that take me out of the story and so are the things I need to do to get on with the story, but which I also might not be able to get through, ruining a playthrough and a game for me.  This only gets worse in RPGs (and some adventure games) where some of the things I have to do on my own — choosing abilities when leveling, for example — can leave me in a position where I at my skill level can’t finish the game, but where it is then way too late to go back and redo it.

Now, when it comes to RPGs and adventure games I have finished some off, but when it comes to RPGs the ones that I’ve finished most often are the ones where that’s not really an issue.  Games like “Shadow Hearts” and the “Personas” select attributes for you at level up, and so all you have to do is select what specific Personas or Fusions to carry and use in battle which makes things easier.  And it’s really hard to level up that badly in the “Knights of the Old Republic” games.  “Oblivion” levels up the enemies with you, so it could have happened, but I did manage to level up enough to make things work and think that I was running on a lower difficulty level besides.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence, though, that the games that I’ve been finishing are the ones with the better story.

Which highlights what I feel is missing from video games in general:  games that are based on nothing more than building a story through encounters.  Reading around at The CRPG Addict, I found one game there that really drove home the sort of game that that might be, with “The Black Sage”, where it’s just a set of encounters where you have to select an option for.  Combined with my idea of “No Bad Ends”, this could easily be used to build a story that reflects the consequences of the character’s actions, which could be really, really fun.  You couldn’t do anything like that in a AAA game today, of course, because it would be way too simple.  I think that the original “Vampire the Masquerade:  Bloodlines” game made an interesting stab at this, but the combat was too tricky and constant to make it work as a game where the primary gameplay is using your abilities in creative ways — even down to fighting sometimes — to make your way through the world.  And the Personas have the interesting dating sim gameplay added to it which means that most of the game is spent doing things the way you want and the combat, though important, really is an aside to everything else.

Which does hint that the sort of game I want to play is best captured by dating sims, since for the most part they are about going through the world acting the way you want to act, and seeing how things end up at the end.  Or, at least, you can play those games that way, even if you might not end up getting a good ending if you do.  The most recent actual full dating sim I played was “Sunrider Academy”, which had some interesting points but was one that I screwed up early on.  Also in that post is “Monster Prom”, which is actually probably far more the sort of game I was looking for, but was too short for my tastes.  In general, the problem with dating sims is that they’re hard to find.  As noted, on their own they aren’t going to be mainstream, and so you’re either going to find mainstream games with dating sim elements (like “Persona” or “Conception II”) or have to find indie dating sims.  Or else you’re going to have to look at “adult” dating sims.  As noted before with “Huniepop”, I don’t mind sexual aspects in games, but the risk with those games is that they’ll overemphasize the sex which means that the dating sim and life simulation aspects will be shallow and mostly useless, or else they’ll make it so that the sex is a reward for your difficult work which makes the game grindy.  So it’s hard — and risky — to try to find good dating sims or life simulators.  “The Sims” seems like it might fit, although the problem with them is that the only story is that which you create, which can be fun but also can drag a bit if you have to fight with the game to do the things you want to do (“Medieval” had more of a story, but I ended up not playing it that much.  Perhaps I should return to it at some point).

So, those are my general thoughts on video games from the last week.  I will probably have to choose another game, but don’t know what it will be yet.

Gah!

August 30, 2021

So, it should be no surprise to anyone who has been following my Accomplishments posts that I haven’t really been playing video games as much anymore, and in general significantly less than I’d like.  But while I did keep trying to find time to fit games in, it wasn’t really bothering me all that much.  Until very recently, when I made a big mistake, and came across and started reading this blog about playing old RPGs.  And doing that got me feeling very frustrated about not being able to play video games, and ranting to myself about all the reasons why I can’t.  And that leads to this post where I rant about that to you.

Okay, so first, why did reading that site cause me so much consternation?  Because there are a number of games on there that I’ve wanted to replay for years and that I’m not at all close to being able to play, let alone replay.  Such as the Gold Box games (I have the GOG versions as well as some emulated versions).  Such as Sentinel Worlds I:  Future Magic (I have an emulated copy of that somewhere, probably provided by my friend).  Such as the Might and Magic games (I have the GOG versions of these).  And then thinking of that reminded me again of games like Icewind Dale (I have original disks for this one), Icewind Dale II (original disks and a Switch version), Planescape:  Torment (ditto) and Baldur’s Gate I and II (ditto).  And then the Fallouts as well (I have through New Vegas from GOG, I think).  So there’s a lot of old and not-so-old video games that I want to play, and the CRPG Addict’s tale of spending 10 years — up to now — trying to play all of those games simply reminded me of them.

That wouldn’t have really bothered me much, though, except that I had already been a bit annoyed at not being able to play games, and had recently just reworked my schedule to try to fit some in and was trying to figure out what to play.  I had been trying to find a game that I wanted to play that I could play for about an hour or two when I had time.  Now, again, on its own that would have been mildly annoying, especially since I couldn’t find a game.  I have the remastered Mass Effect Trilogy on tap, and loaded up the original Mass Effect game that I had started with a Barbara Gordon expy (again, like the first time, I was playing with the character creator and noted that the default looked a lot like Dina Meyers’ “Birds of Prey” version), and was surprised to note that I had, in what had to be only a couple of  sessions, played it for over 10 hours.  And then took an hour to finish the Terra Nova mission, and realized that this was really not going to be the sort of game that I could play for an hour.  I’d already decided that that was true for a new game of Wizardry 8 that I’d started by creating the Gilligan’s Island characters, because there’s lots of combat that can often run long.  I also have a Human Noble play of Dragon Age:  Origins on tap that I started with the GOG version so that I’d get a chance to play all of the DLC, and mused that it might work although its areas can get a bit long.  And I had tried to run Sith Lords but it kept crashing on my new laptop before getting into the game, so I’d have to play it on my older gaming system.

So my mind was already on these things, and then the blog came along and added a number of other options, and then that reminded of other options — some Vita RPGs, for example — and a bunch of older console RPGs on the PS2 and … Gah!  Thinking overload!

(Which, to be honest, I’m prone to.  The entire reason this blog exists is to allow me to stop thinking about things so I can think about other things).

Okay, so even though I was being overwhelmed with options, the real issue was not the number of options but the fact that I didn’t think that any of them would really work for me.  One issue was the issue that I’d had previously, kinda dropped, but has returned:  I work from home all day and so work in the office(bedroom) that I use for my main computers all day.  At the end of the day, it is kinda nice to get out of that room and into the living room, and so I wanted to play games that I could play there.  So games that will play on my newer laptop and on my consoles.  But Sith Lords and another good candidate — Disciples 2 — only play on my older gaming system due to it seems operating system incompatibilities that I don’t really want to take the time to fix, especially given the options.  Even then, with the laptop and with the PS4 and PS3 and Switch and the Vita and the PS2 there were a ton of options.  But I kept running into the issue of “I need to be able to play these games for about an hour or two a day in the couple of days a week that I can play games.  I might get some more time than that, but can’t count on it.”  Which leaves out the big game that I really, really should play sometime, Persona 5 Royal.

And as is my wont, this got me pondering why that was.  While in the past I’d had issues playing games, it was never really this bad, and really only happened for a few months at a time when I was really busy (and sometimes I played more when I was really busy because I let everything else slide).  And this got me thinking about how since I’ve been working from home my schedule has been a lot tighter than it used to be, even though in theory I’ve lost about an hour a day of a commute to work.  And it isn’t that being able to work from home has meant that I work longer hours, because other than some late meetings every second week I haven’t been, mostly because I haven’t had the time.  So what’s taking up my time.

One big thing that I’ve lost is Sundays.  Because I’m working from home, I’m not eating out much.  Or, rather, at all, as I haven’t bought anything from any kind of restaurant for about 9 months now, and that was to freeze it in preparation from Christmas.  So what it makes the most sense for me to do is cook things ahead and then have stuff that I can heat up during the day when people at work aren’t bugging me (usually early in the morning since I start early).  So my Sundays are taken up with my weekly grocery run, cooking for the week, eating, doing dishes, and doing laundry.  And while this costs me an entire day, it’s actually a lot less stressful for me to do things this way and so is working out pretty well for me.

Of course, the problem is that before Sunday afternoons and potentially mornings were the times when I go do a lot of things, like playing games.  And that’s gone away pretty much completely, so aside from writing some blog posts or possibly doing some reading pretty much everything else that I would do there has to be done some other time.  So the big thing to move to is Saturdays, but that isn’t as free as I’d like for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I have a lot of things to put there — cleaning, other basic errands, and the blog — that pretty much takes up that day.  If I happened to have a morning free on Saturday, I also have The Old Republic to fit in there, since that definitely requires a long session to play — I like to do one planet in a session, which takes me about 3 – 4 hours — and so wouldn’t have time to do any general thing.  So that leaves me a little time on Saturday afternoons, but I’ve been cooking something to eat on Saturdays and doing that requires me to do the dishes, especially since I’ve often left some from the week that need to be done.  But of course when cooking on Sunday I will generate enough dishes to have to do them again.  And before anyone suggests that a dishwasher might help, it’s not the general plates and the like that take time, but the pots and pans from the cooking, which need more attention than most dishwashers can give them.  So my time is limited on Saturday afternoons, but I do have some time there (I recently played some arcade and board games in this time, and am trying to do that more regularly).  That being said, that time ends up being about the same as I have most weekdays, which then is a bit shorter than I’d like.

So why is that?  Well, as it turns out, there are some constraints on my time, especially on weekdays, that I didn’t really have before.  The first one is my push to get through my stack of TV shows on DVD.  In order to do that in any reasonable amount of time, I want to spend a significant amount of time on them a night.  For hour long shows, that was usually at least an hour and a half (two episodes or half a disk).  But that last sentence hints at another constraint, which is that how I watch these things is to stop doing everything for the night, shut off the lights, and just watch them.  Because of that, I’d like to not have to get up and change the disk in between.  While watching hour long shows, watching two episodes allowed me to do that, but also would drag the shows out pretty long, but watching an entire disk would generally leave my evenings a bit short.  Some of the shows I watched had more episodes on a disk, which pushed me to push that time out a bit longer but to finish series faster.  And Crave shows worked well because I could watch as many episodes as I wanted without having to worry about disks at all, so I pretty much started it when I finished my other stuff for the day.  But half hour shows have more and sometimes a variable number of episodes per disk, so I settled in to watching about 2.5 hours of shows a day.  That left me a total of four hours in my evening, which seems like more than enough.

Except that I have other things to do in that time as well.  Since I eat early, I have to eat something at some point (usually something light).  That takes a bit of time.  While I’ve been taking a break from it, one of the other reasons to eat early is so that I can play Ring Fit Adventure without being full and getting sick.  So I lose at least an hour to those things.  And then I’m modding Arkham Horror games again, and usually need to update every day.  That takes me about a half hour to an hour.  So you can imagine that if I balanced everything perfectly I’d have about two hours to play games in the evening.  Hence, a game that I can play for about an hour or two and make progress.

(And, of course, I’m not a master at time management either.  There are all sorts of times when I could do things but then get distracted reading or watching something or playing around that I later lament that I could have just done one of the things that I’d been wanting to do for a while).

And even there I only have about two days where I can do that, because of the other things I want to do.  One big time sink for me right now is the blog.  I’m proud of keeping up my “every weekday” posting rate, but it does mean that I spend a lot of time writing blog posts.  A horror movie post takes me about a half hour to and hour to write, as does the “Philosophy in Popular Culture” post.  The commentary on general movies and TV shows can take a half hour to an hour and a half, depending on how detailed I want to get.  The longer philosophy posts always take over an hour and can take two or more depending on how deep the topic is, as do the Deep Dive posts that I’ve been making lately.  That takes up a significant amount of time, but I like doing it and am happy to do so.  But if things take longer on the weekends than I anticipated or don’t feel like writing blogs there, then it eats into my weekday afternoon times.

And then there’s general reading.  I’ve been working through a number of fiction and philosophical books for the last while, and trying to finish them.  Although I read a lot at pretty much any time (like when I’m eating), there’s some pressure for me to read in the afternoons and evening to get through them.  As it stands, they’re going slower than I’d like but quickly enough (I’m doing Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series right now and then going to re-read “Lord of the Rings” before reloading with something else, while working through some Nietzche as well).  But that takes up time and can happen every day.  I also bought a lot of books with logic puzzles and really want to get into them.  And then there’s the two longer meetings every second week.  And I need to find time to watch at least one horror movie a week to keep that running (and as seen above they are great to watch and write ahead because they don’t take a lot of time).  So I lose even more time to play video games.

Which them leads to the conclusion to this entire thought chain:  I am not playing games as much as I’d like, and that can be a bit frustrating, but in general it’s a matter of priorities and I think that my priorities are right.  I didn’t realize how much losing Sundays would impact my time in general, but I still think that what I do there really works for me.  I probably need to manage my time later, but at the same time I think it’s good for my mental health to sometimes just goof off and not do anything important. 

Because the one thing that I’ve been grumbling to myself about for a while is that I no longer seem to do anything just for fun anymore.  My reading is often things that I want to read for a reason and to write about.  What I watch I watch to ultimately write about.  Writing the blog is something that I do to do it, not just because I feel like it.  And everything else is some sort of work.  While I do enjoy most of the things I do, it’s not very often that I do it just for fun without it doing something else for me as well.  Times where I just say “Screw it” and do something just for the heck of it are important to me, as well.  I probably just need to make sure that everything else is under control first before I do that (or be willing to face the consequences of that.  Which I’m pretty good at by now).

Mass Effect Ending: Why We Give In

July 14, 2021

So last week I ended with commenting that the really interesting question is not “Why would the Reapers give this choice to Shepard?” but was instead “Why would the Reapers give this choice to Shepard?”.   The Reapers had managed to find their way into the galaxy and were in the middle of their Reaping.  Sure, they had faced a number of setbacks over the events of the first two games and it was even the case that at least a couple of Reapers had been destroyed.  Still, their forces were dominant and the combined forces of all of the races worth talking about were likely to get wiped out in the encounter at Earth.  And even if they managed to survive, the Reapers certainly had forces in other places that could relatively easily wipe out the pitiful remains of that fleet.  And here comes Shepard to talk to them, when they were almost certain to win and continue the cycle.  Why would they decide to give Shepard the means to end the cycle at that point?

A question exactly like this is at the heart of at least the first season of the TV series Babylon 5:  the Minbari set out to exterminate the humans out of revenge, and were doing an incredibly good job of doing so until they finally reached Earth.  And then the war stopped.  And not only did the war stop, but the Minbari surrendered, even though they had their main battle fleet doing incredibly well against the battered remains of the human fleets.  Why did they surrender?  What possible reason could they have had for that?  This mystery drives the first season and arguably its ramifications carries on throughout the entire series.

Now, I’m not saying that ME3 should have turned this into a mystery.  They could have, but it’s clear that they wanted to wrap things up and not raise a new mystery that they might have needed to resolve at some point.  My point here is just to note that this sort of situation — overpowering enemy that suddenly gives up — is one that cries out for explanation.  It would always create a mystery, and so if they wanted to take this tack they really needed to explain why this happened.  So that needed to be a big part of the final revelation, whatever it was that they came up with.

Fortunately, it turns out that the answer is a pretty simple one:  they’re doing this because they need to.  Whatever their purpose or goal is, it’s not working.  They themselves can’t see any way out of those issues.  And then here comes Shepard, a respected opponent with a radically different view of the world than them.  This is perhaps the first external being that can talk directly to their controlling intelligence because this is the first time that anyone has managed to build the Crucible in any of their cycles.  If you aren’t going to make being able to do this a reward for building the Crucible — and they didn’t — then you really need to play this off as them finally finding someone who might be able to tell them how to fix their problems since they can’t do that themselves.

So, starting from there, I’m going to suggest two purposes that could have played into the ending and that I think would have worked.  In line with what I said last time, I’m going to hold the three endings to be the same, at least in their nature, and so will be limited to the three endings of “Destroy the Reapers”, “Control the Reapers” and “Merge Synthetic and Organic Life”.  I think that these two endings will work far better than the original ending — if for no other reason than that they will at least make sense and not clash with the world — and also think that these endings are not super-duper creative endings, but are instead fairly standard plots that have been used heavily in science fiction for a long time now.

The first one is the pretty standard “Advanced species builds super-technological war machines and then dies out, leaving them as a threat to everyone else”.  Here, the best way to approach it would be that they built these machines to wipe out every group that was currently or likely in the near future to be a threat to them.  They succeeded brilliantly.   But with that done they didn’t want to keep these machines around or give them a chance to decide that they should eliminate the main race as well, so they put them to sleep for 50,000 years with orders to wake up and do what they had done previously.

But 50,000 years is a long time, and even though they didn’t face threats from other races they still managed to die out. Plague would be a good one for this, or internal strife.  At any rate, it would need to be something that the Reapers couldn’t help them with to explain why they didn’t just call them back to help deal with.  So, then, after 50,000 years the Reapers wake up, find no one to countermand their orders, and so go on with their programmed task, wiping out every intelligent species above a certain tech level except for the ones who created them … which, since the ones who created them are all dead, means all of themThen they go back to sleep for another 50,000 years.

But the Reapers aren’t stupid.  They realize that this is all pointless.  They want to stop doing it.  But they can’t.  They need to have someone with access to the Crucible and so with access to their central intelligence to countermand their orders.  But they can’t come out and say that.  They might be able to “let slip” pieces of the Crucible to the species that they are wiping out — mostly through their indoctrinated servants — in the hopes that someone will put all the pieces together and show up to do that, and it would have to be someone known and respected by them, but if that can happen then maybe they finally can get a new purpose.  It finally all comes together with Shepard, and so they offer Shepard the chance to give them a new purpose, one built around what Shepard wants the galaxy itself to be.

This also leads to an interesting idea.  Shamus Young complains that in order for ME3 to work the Reapers have to deviate from their winning strategy of taking the Citadel first and shutting down the Mass Relays and instead end up attacking at various places around the galaxy first.  Shepard could raise this as a question, and they could reply that they never did that as an actual tactical plan.  No, they knew that the Citadel was the Catalyst and so always showed up there first in the hopes that someone would be willing to talk to them and break the cycle.  When no one showed up, they just started Reaping from here.  However, this time through the interactions of Sovereign and Harbinger they knew that no one was going to show up to talk to them, so they were able to just start Reaping, and so started hitting the major population centres first.  So what looked like a tactical decision really wasn’t, and this would show an alien way of thinking that is often quite appreciated in science fiction.

So how does this fit with the endings?  “Destroy” is obvious:  Shepard (and the player) find these sorts of machines heinous and don’t feel that they can be used for any other purpose, and so the only thing that can happen is that they be wiped out.  Since they find their original purpose pointless and somewhat heinous themselves, the Reapers would be willing to be destroyed rather than go back to it after waiting this long to find someone who can judge them and give them a new purpose.

“Control” also works, as it can flow partly from what TIM said earlier, in that the power of the Reapers could be used to do great things in the galaxy.  All Shepard has to be is convinced that the technology and the power of the Reapers is something that ought not be wasted and that they can do good if controlled by Shepard and this choice becomes reasonable and makes sense.

“Synthesis” is the odd ending out here.  You’d have to have the Reapers specifically mention it as something that they can do and so something that they were thinking about, which would be hard to do in a natural manner.  However, once that’s done it’s not all that hard to imagine that Shepard might think of it as a good thing and a unique opportunity that Shepard needs to embrace since it won’t come again.  It’s just making it a choice that’s tricky because it would seem to come out of nowhere and isn’t something Shepard could suggest.

The second ending is again a fairly standard one:  the Reapers are trying to evolve Organics to their highest potential, but they find that once they get technology they abandon working on their innate biological abilities and focus on using technology as a crutch.  This cycle is one of the better ones, with the Asari placing a great focus on biotics and TIM and Miranda’s father trying to create biotic wunderkinds, but even then the Asari use technology too much and TIM, once he gleans that he might be able to control the synthetic Reapers, abandons his plans for evolving humanity in favour of developing technology that means that they’d never have to evolve.  The Reapers have been resetting the species in the hopes that at least one will put a bigger focus on Organic evolution than technology and AIs/VIs, and they are always disappointed.  As this is getting old, they place the onus on Shepard to tell them what it is that they’re doing wrong.

“Destroy”, as an answer, is basically Shepard deciding that either their purpose is wrong, or else that they are completely the wrong sort of thing to try to do that.  Even if this sort of artificial evolution was desirable, it’s not going to be achieved by wiping out all intelligent life every 50,000 years, and it doesn’t seem like the Reapers could do anything else.  And again, they could accept that since it does make some sense and they don’t want to go on like they have been.

“Control” as an answer is the odd one out here, mostly because Shepard either has to think that their purpose is reasonable but that Shepard can succeed where they failed, or else fall into TIM’s “Think of the possibilities!” and want to subvert the Reapers into making things better.  Still, at least those are reasonable responses that Shepard might think of at the time.

But “Synthesis” is the most interesting one.  I wouldn’t make this a default ending.  I’d make it so that Shepard has to argue with the Reapers that using technology to supplement biological abilities isn’t a bad thing.  Shepard would note that in fact among humans they only managed to get biotics through a technological implant.  So it’s not biology vs technology but instead that the two of them working together can create something better than what either could do separately.  Then the Reapers could note that they do have the ability to merge technology and biology and so maybe that, then, would have them actually achieve their goal of evolving Organics to their highest state.  Then Shepard could decide if they agree with that approach or not.

I’m not saying that these are perfect.  There are obviously some holes in them that would need to be patched up.  But in and of themselves they make sense, they fit with — or at least don’t contradict — the world, and are standard sci-fi tropes that have been used in sci-fi for ages.  By all measures, they are better than what we ended up with in ME3 and aren’t all that much harder to come up with.  And, ultimately, I dare say they would have been better appreciated and so would have made for a more satisfying ending and trilogy than what we actually had.