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Mobile Mindspace

The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.

This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.

Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.

The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?

I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.

Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?

I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.

Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.

Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.

But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.

Post-Game Depression

Have you ever finished beating a game, only to find yourself lacking all motivation to do anything else for days afterwards?

Yeah, that’s me right now.

In this particular case, the diagnosis is easy. The last game I played was Metal Gear Solid 5 on Sunday, two days ago. According to Steam, I logged 75 hours /played. The game was released on the 1st. I did not actually start playing until the next day, but that means I spent an average of 6.25 hours a day on this singular piece of entertainment. To speculate that there might be some sort of withdraw symptoms associated with such behavior is extremely fair.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to explore while mired deep in it. I knew it was coming with MGS 5, but I’ve experienced it even in games I haven’t mainlined to quite this degree. I’m even relatively certain why it happens: it comes from the sudden loss of a body of useful experience. Games are a system of rules and, over time, you come to absorb these rules into yourself in the form of knowledge and reflexes. You generally get better at the games you play. You understand them more. You begin to anticipate future actions. All useful things in the context of playing a particular game.

Then it ends.

All that gaming minutia forged in the fire of experience… becomes irrelevant. Sure, it will still be there for you should you ever turn the game on again. My memorization of all the pulls of every TBC heroic might come in handy should I reinstall WoW during a Timewalking weekend. But just like after a breakup, sometimes (most times) you just got to let things go. The memories will stay with you in all your new experiences, but the specific way their hand fit into yours will not. That special, secret knowledge no longer has an application, and your mind mourns as it reclaims the space.

I enjoy playing games and will continue to do so in the future. It is precisely the mechanic of learning new systems that I enjoy games so – finding the contours, the edge pieces, the optimization. I enjoy this in spite of knowing the inevitable end of this process, the returning to Square One with a new game and novel idiosyncrasies.

Titles comes and go, but the process, the root that generates joy, is eternal.

Still… the ennui inbetween, I could do without.

Prisoner’s (Gaming) Dilemma

BINGO was postponed for a week, but I’m not even mad. Seeing the shit Blizzard is getting on the forums every time they introduce another flying mount is payment enough. For now.

Let us set that aside for a moment.

So I was presented with two hypothetical scenarios over the weekend which I found interesting for reasons. The first one was this: you’re going to jail for ten years, but it’s a minimum security prison that will allow you to take one offline game (any DLC included) with you. But that will be the only game you get for those ten years. Which game do you pick?

The second scenario is similar, but this time it’s life in prison. For some insane reason, the Warden will allow you to take any three games and allow an internet connection. The parameters did not specify whether future DLC or microtransactions will be free for you, but let’s assume you can make enough money stamping licence plates to cover, say, $30/month. Which games do you pick?

The answer to the first scenario was pretty much unanimous amongst my fellow hypothetical jail mates: Minecraft. There was a Skyrim holdout in there, but ten years is a long time and I don’t think mods could extend the attention of even the staunchest Skyrim fan that long.

The second scenario answer was more diverse, with my friend solidly in the Destiny camp (which is his current console mini-MMO game of choice). Mine was more blunt: World of Warcraft. Yes, even with bile I feel towards Flightgate, I have to admit that WoW is a game A) most likely to still be around and supported for decades to come, and B) one offering the most diverse playing experiences. In other words, you could spend a lot of time getting real good at raiding, master it, and then set off to roll the boulder up the PvP hill and feel a difference.

I found my own responses interesting primarily because I don’t particularly like playing either of them. The last time I seriously played Minecraft was before they introduced the Hunger meter; it may not have even been out of beta yet. I am still “playing” WoW currently, but it’s in the same way I play Clash of Clans: short bursts of activity to kill time, because apparently I’m going to live forever and have no standards. Or perhaps it’s because if I devoted the whole of my free time to one game, I’d probably clear three games a week, and the corresponding post-game depression phase three times. No thanks.

Still, what does that really say about me, and presumably us, that we aren’t simply playing these games full-time? That we could conceivably be playing them for 10+ years, but would rather not to? Obviously the intensity of a novel experience is higher with new games, so it makes sense that we enjoy playing the newer ones more (at least for a while). But here are these other games which clearly are mechanically superior in a replayability sense and we, or I, don’t seem to care. Until we’re in jail, anyway.

In any case, I’d be interested to hear other peoples’ choices in these two scenarios. For me, it’s Minecraft for the first, then Minecraft, WoW, and Counter-Strike for the second. I thought about swapping Magic Online with Minecraft in the second set, but the $30/month limit, while arbitrary, still wouldn’t cover hardly any reasonable amount of gametime.

Wirehead

I have obviously been posting a lot about Guild Wars 2, mainly because that is what I have been doing for the last few weeks. There are some additional such posts in the pipeline. But behind all this seeming enthusiasm lies the similar feeling of… offness that Spinks talked about.

While playing, I feel an irrational need to hit every resource node I come across. It feels good. Which is… good. Fine. But when I think about the game as a whole, I see no future in it for me. So many people online and in-game mention that the lack of endgame progression is not an issue because you are not paying a subscription. “Just stop playing.”

…but this is an MMO.

An MMO, to me, makes no sense to play sporadically. If you are not committed to the idea of playing often (or everyday), what are you doing? Why am I hitting resource nodes and selling things and hoarding gems if I will be uninstalling in a few months? Doing something only tangentially fun for weeks (e.g. dailies) makes sense to me if your final reward is something you can reasonably use for X amount of time. If you immediately stop after achieving the goal, my time retroactively feels wasted.

Nevermind how the “community” aspect is supposed to develop without player continuity.

Think about Tiny Tower, or 10000000, or any number of “time-management” iOS games. I bought 10000000 off of a Penny Arcade recommendation, and it is basically Bejeweled with RPG elements. I got really into it, maximizing resource gains, plotting out upgrades, “grinding,” and so on. Then I won. And felt empty.

I get post-game depression fairly often, a vague feeling of loss. Even if I had fun along the way, the post-game mood usually makes me question why I bothered in the first place. What mitigates such feelings is usually the sense that I still accumulated something, be it twitch-skills from FPS games (pro skills from Counter-Strike carry over into Battlefield 3, etc) or the experience of a story in the case of many RPGs or proper books. I played Xenogears over a decade ago for 80 hours one time, and I still think about it occasionally.

I will not think about Tiny Tower or 10000000 a decade from now. Nor, potentially, Guild Wars 2. Those games were/have been/are fun to play, respectively. But I am not looking for opportunities to kill time with amusing diversions. I do not have enough time, in fact. What I am looking for are opportunities to “invest” my time, or at least a simulation thereof, while having fun too.

Scott Adams once quipped that the last invention humanity will ever make is a Holodeck. As soon as that was built and marketed, humanity would collectively starve to death inside a Holodeck two weeks later. The future is actually much simpler than Holodecks or realistic VR headsets and such – the future is a wire in your brain that stimulates your nucleus accumbens directly. Watching college sports or playing MMOs or contemplating the vastness of the universe are all primitive methods of manually fondling your glands. The dark secret of The Matrix is that the overlay was completely unnecessary – a little bit of electricity in the right spot removes the inefficient middleman of reality.

The above may seem a non sequitur, but here is the connection: I feel Guild Wars 2 is simply a wire in my head. It generates good feelings, but doesn’t mean anything. It is a personal problem, of course. But all problems are ultimately personal problems. And I grow increasingly weary of doing fun things while simultaneously waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Playing Guild Wars 2 feels like going to Disneyland ahead of the apocalypse.

“So stop playing.” I’m sorry, I cannot hear you over the humming of this wire in my head.

So, About Those Extended Endings

Three months to the day ago, I decided to write a post called What I Want to See from Bioware, vis-a-vis the proposed Extend Cut of Mass Effect 3.

And now I have seen those endings. All four of them.

That is your warning, kiddos. Spoilers dead ahead.

In that prior post, there were a number of things I was looking for from Bioware, in Best Case/Worst Case scenarios. The biggest one was the Normandy scene at the end, which made no goddamn sense whatsoever – it essentially ruined the endings for me all by itself. What I wanted to see in the Extended Cut was:

What I want to see from Bioware:

  • Best Case: an explanation of how the crew (EDI and Liara, in my case) got back on-board the Normandy, what the Normandy was doing while I was on the Citadel, if they knew/suspected Shepard was alive or dead, and why they were running away.
  • Worst Case: ensure that the crew with you on the final mission don’t show up in the final scene.

Mission accomplished. In a big way.

Yes. Yes he did.

In the interests of being somewhat objective, the “answer” they gave to where your crew members were at was… a bit hard to swallow. With Harbinger easily knocking out tanks and fighters left and right, it seemed quite out of character for him to let the Normandy land, for people to be evacuated, for there to be time enough for one last tearful goodbye, and then an escape back into orbit. If the Normandy was capable of landing, why not just drop off a bunch of people at the beam itself?

I am willing to entertain the notion that Harbinger would not care about Normandy picking people back up, as long as they were not being moved closer to the beam, although that seems a bit weak.

Outside of that gripe? Smashing success on the other points. I laughed out loud when Hackett said what he did in the screenshot above; partly from the unexpected bluntness, and partly from the beginnings of a catharsis I had been missing for the last three months.

The next section of that prior post was about Indoctrination:

What I want to see from Bioware:

  • Best case: Settle the Indoctrination debate once and for all. If Indoctrination is real, include a true final battle scene, potentially followed by the same sort of choices.
  • Worst case: Remove the breath scene.

As far as I am concerned, the Indoctrination theory is kaput. It was actually kaput months ago, but the mini-epilogues following each ending serves as final nails. In the scheme of things, Indoctrination was a better ending than what we were originally given, but these new ones supersede the old in a good way.

The breath scene is unfortunately still in the game, but since March I have come to understand that the Destroy ending is actually truly Renegade. Ironically, all those Indoctrination videos had led me to believe that Control was bad and Destroy good, (i.e. the real ending), when that really was not the case. It is true that “nuking the site from orbit is the only way to be sure,” so to speak, but condemning all synthetics to death, including EDI, when other options are available is undeniably Renegade. Control may not seem like the way the Reaper threat should be handled, but a Paragon Shepard would take that chance. The consensus says: these units do have souls.

The final section was general plot holes:

What I want to see from Bioware:

  • Best case: Shore up these plot holes via Codex entries, FAQs, or at least acknowledge they exist.
  • Worst case: leave everything vague and unsettled.

Many of the points I raised regarding the Citadel were answered by the expanded Catalyst dialog, if a bit weakly. Not the biggest one, though. Why the Reapers did not simply reassert control of the Citadel immediately upon emerging from dark space is probably one of those “Why didn’t the Eagles just fly Frodo to Mount Doom?” questions for the ages.

The Endings Themselves

Talk about night and day compared to the previous ones, eh?

Should have shipped like this.

The amusing thing to me, is how my very first extended ending was the new one.

Unintentionally.

After slogging through the Cerberus base and the London battle and the unskippable post-beam dialog, the very first thing I did when I regained control over Shepard was shoot the Catalyst in the face. His Harbinger-esque “So be it” response took me aback, as did the unexpectedly poignant “Failure” ending. I remembered that time-capsule scene with Liara, and was even touched by the knowledge that though we had failed, the cycle was eventually broken by the next generation of intelligent species. Whom, while still looking suspiciously like asari, nevertheless had the gumption to actually take Reaper threat goddamn seriously. “Was that so hard?” I asked the monitor afterwards.

I played through all three of the other main ones, and was immensely satisfied. It is still Synthesis – aka the Green Cupcake – all the way for me, but I felt that Bioware did an excellent job at handling the Control ending as well. They all felt a bit… Deus Ex. In a good way. I have no idea how they will rationalize additional post-ME3 games in the Mass Effect universe, at least without holding Destroy up as canon, but I suppose we will all jump off that bridge when we come to it.

Months ago, a friend asked me as to whether I would purchase any future ME3 DLC. At the time, I replied “It will depend on how Bioware handles the Extended Cut.” Although I am extraordinarily happier with the series now than I was back in March, I am not sure that I want to revisit Shepard and crew again. Say what you will about the writing or “cheap emotional tricks” or whatever else, but this series truly has affected me in ways few games (or books, or movies) have.

I forgive you, Joker.

I am thankful for the experience, of course. I just know that the longer I stay in Manse de la Shepard, the less likely I am to enjoy all the other experiences out there. It is hard enough handling regular post-game depression, without also having to question why I am not a better man in real life.

I am only half-way joking.

Moving Past Mass Effect

First, I apologize in advance for another “blank” entry.

As someone who typically plays games that are old and on Steam sales, I can appreciate the frustration of people who are waiting on ME3 and yet are inundated by spoiler-laden posts on their Readers/blogrolls. In fact, I do not even like friends telling me they liked or disliked an ending to anything – my mind immediately starts analyzing the kinds of things my friend likes/dislikes (“Hmm, he wasn’t a fan of FF7’s ending…”), and extrapolates possible ending scenarios from there.

If you are such a person, or don’t want ME3 spoilers generally, last chance to bail.

Yeah, we kinda do.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us… We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
–Franz Kafka

Since finishing Mass Effect 3 Monday night, I have been in turmoil. Post-game depression is fairly typical for me, and endings like this one are a sort of double-whammy.

Rohan described the break as being “pre-beam” and “post-beam,” but it actually started earlier for me. The invasion of Earth itself was curiously… off. What should have been a momentous emotional occasion was, well, not. Where was the stirring music? Fires and Reapers and silence. For a while, I was actually worried that there was a bug preventing any music from playing.

Once back aboard the Normandy, things started feeling right again. This was Mass Effect, this was what it was about. In fact, it was not until ME3 specifically that I even felt I knew what the series was about. Interstellar war was one thing, but what I cared about was landing in a situation, and being the right man at the right time. Shepard was not setting out to dictate galactic policy, Shepard was not some god-figure who arbitrates which species lives and which dies. He (or she) simply happened to find himself in that position, at that turning point in history, and does the best that he can.

It is in that context that I felt the post-beam sequence was fine, for what it was.

Through the prism of the ending, I felt that Shepard the character got the closure he needed in the hours leading up to the end. The romance section put it in sharp relief: I was so worried about getting “locked-in” too soon that I accidentally past the point of no return without anyone at all. When I reloaded and made my choice, the stark difference between my feelings of the game – based simply upon those two scenes, one alone and the other with Liara (sorry, Tali) – drove home the fact that I love this series, no matter what happened.

Ever read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? As of today, the series is one book away from completion, and I have become so invested in the final outcome that I can barely stand it. But… what kind of ending should there be? The one I want, or the one I deserve? What if the ending is simply terrible, like how I felt ME3’s was at the time I was experiencing it?

With Wheel of Time, that answer is largely moot. There was one point in Winter’s Heart (book 9), one perfect moment, when everything in the narrative came together for me; a great character catharsis, independent of any kind of grand action event. I remember sighing, and a tension I did not even know existed, releasing. No matter what happens in Book 13, no matter what the Wheel weaves, they can never take that moment away or cheapen it.

I am coming to understand the same with Mass Effect.

Bioware cannot take away the feeling of immense depth with Mordin, when the Salarian stereotype fell away to reveal a reservoir of guilt for necessary evils; a doctor moved to inflict harm, faced with impossible choices. Bioware cannot take away my own feeling of guilt when I heard Kaiden’s “Belay that order!” command repeated in the forest dream sequence; a sacrifice I readily accepted at the time to save a woman I had feelings toward and ultimately passed over. Bioware cannot take away EDI and Joker and all the other hilariously poignant moments in the entire series, but ME2 in particular. Bioware cannot take away the bromance with Garrus, or the absolute struggle I had in choosing whether to intentionally miss that shot or not.

Here, here.

So, if you struggled as I have, or struggle still, I have a recommendation. Listen to To Build a Home by The Cinematic Orchestra. Listen to it again. Then read this Kotaku article. Then remember every time you felt this way before – maybe Cowboy Bebop, maybe End of Evangelion, maybe Saving Private Ryan – and try to remember the last time you have felt so wounded by a video game. Have wanted something different so bad you could taste it.

And then… try to let go. If you are anything like me, I am having an exceedingly difficult time wanting to.

Good game, Bioware. Good game.

P.S. Epilogue: For what it’s worth, I still believe Bioware should have handled the ending better (and I am aware of the “secret ending”). The tone and recycled outcomes were one thing, but the incongruent Normandy bit was quite another. At first, I railed against the notion that Bioware was planning on going the “if you want the true ending, it’ll be $9.99 DLC” route, and the implicit dream/indoctrination sequence that implies. But the precedent already exists: Bethesda did just that in the Fallout 3 “Broken Steel” DLC.

The difference being, of course, that Fallout 3 was immensely cathartic in wrapping things up at the end, straight out of the box.