Why Skyrim isn’t racist enough.

So for those of you who have been living under a rock: I have wonderful news! The Elder Scrolls dropped its fifth installment 9 days ago. So far it has gained critical success and sold millions upon millions of copies.

Gotta love vikings and dragons.

I have personally dumped in about 40 hours into the game, and I barely scratched the surface of what exists in the game. My quest log is overflowing with things to do and not enough time to do them.

I have a few game play/bug problems I’d love to chat with BethSoft about, but bugs are bugs. It’s hard to avoid them.

One bone that I have to pick with the design of the game however is this: it’s not racist enough.

Now before you call the ACLU, I assure you if anything that is meant to be very inoffensive.

Before I continue, I will say this about Skyrim: this is the perfect exercise of video games as an art form. The countless moving pieces of Skyrim fit together to make a perfect picture of a world that is compelling and enthralling. It forces the player to think and at times, feel.

With any art form it has a powerful story, much of Skyrim’s events are focused around large scale conflicts. The overriding conflict is the civil war between the Aldemeri controlled Empire and the Rebellious Nord Stormcloaks. Now, when working with such a divisive issue as a civil war, the people will be seething anger and discontent for each other. As you walk through the Province of Skyrim you can hear people shouting at each other down city streets damning the opposition and swearing vengeance. People will approach you to help one faction or the other. This conflict runs deep through the game and it creates an atmosphere of overbearing pressure and uncertainty, which parallels and compliments the Dragon threat nicely. So the civil war represents the political struggle in this game. However, tied into the Imperial occupation of Skyrim is the second conflict, the worship of Talos. The Aldemeri Dominion has sent a detachment of the Thalmor, a group of devout Elven warriors who can be most accurately be compared to a Secret Military Police. The Thalmor are present in Skyrim to help keep order, but also to ensure the end of the worship of Talos, the 9th Divine. Talos is a divine of specific importance to Skyrim, not only was Talos born a Nord, Tiber Septim, but he served as the uniting force that established the Empire. So this conflict with the Aldemeri Dominion serves as the religious conflict in Skyrim.

These cultural, political, and religious conflicts help define and shape the world of Skyrim. A world that feels as though it is tearing apart at its very seems, and there are only a few honestly trying to keep it together.

One qualities of Skyrim that is unique to the series is very well defined races. Each of the races has an extraordinarily unique personality that is a result of both superior design and years of refinement.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena released in 1994 and featured 8 of the now 10 races in Tamriel. Since then The Elder Scrolls has released 13 Games and Expansions. Each installment further contributing to the racial identity and history of these 10 cultures.  This rich history provides a cultural understanding of each race that, I can say with strong confidence, exists in almost no other game.

(For those that don’t know what the Khajiit here’s a sketch – Khajiit sketch)

The races of Tamriel are not only beneficiaries of a long history in games, but they all draw their distinctive identity from their impeccable design. Each is designed with features and nuances that allow the player to embellish their understanding of each race subconsciously. The Elder Scrolls races all have a connection to real life races and creatures allowing the player to take their understanding of those parallels and apply it to the Tamriel race.

I’ll take for example one of my favorite races, the Khajiit.

The Khajiit are a cat-like humanoid race. When you first see a Khajiit, your first thought is probably,

‘Holy shit, that cat is standing up and talking to me’.

Once you get past the initial strangeness of having a chat with Mr. Fluffy, you’ll start to make assumptions about the race. First, the feline nature of the Khajiit makes the player think that perhaps the Khajiit share similar attributes to cats. Is it possible that they are quick, graceful, quiet, and mysterious like felines? All of these thing are true, and as such the Khajiit have always had bonuses to speed, sneaking, and agility. If the player is a seasoned RPG veteran, they will begin to form ideas about the role a Khajiit could play. Quiet and light classes come to mind: thieves, assassins, rogues, warriors of speed, and so on.

Beyond their physical appearance is their voice. When you listen to the Khajiit, it is true they have a unique way of speaking that lends itself to what one might expect a cat would talk like if it spoke English. However upon closer examination, you will notice the Khajiit’s accent is actually Arabic in nature. This may seem unoriginal or irrelevant in some regard, but it is actually the greatest strength of some races.

In other games, alien and foreign speech usually has a layered sound effect to make their voice sound unique. Sometimes the actor’s pitch is higher or lower than is normal for a human speech. Effectively accomplishing nothing more than establishing that: Yes indeed, this creature I am speaking with is not human.

(Brings a whole new meaning to cat burglar)

However, Tamriel’s race connections to the real world help players establish race identity subconsciously. As a clarified earlier before, the Khajiit have an Arabic speech pattern, many players may not immediately recognize it consciously, but unconsciously it begins to conjure up many different pieces of cultural identity.

Geography: arid lands and dry climates. It just so happens that Elswyr the province from which the Khajiit hail is:  “harsh badlands and dry plains,”.

Culture: Intelligent, sly, and clever people with battling factions and classes. Upon examination it turns out that there is a class hierarchy in Elswyr based on the vast wealth disparity.

Economy: A strong trading economy with the entire world for its unique resources. Elswyr is known for exporting the psychotropic drug Skooma made from resources unique to Elswyr. Not to mention Khajiit caravans can be seen throughout Tamriel and Skyrim.

It startlingly how many comparisons can be drawn between the Middle Eastern cultures and that of Khajiit.

Taking in mind the time setting, and I begin to imagine an ‘Arabian Nights’-esque scenario with warring Khajiit Families vying for control of the region, sending rooftop thieves and assassins to undermine each other. What follows from such behavior is a reasonable measure of distrust, these trade-conscious (aka greedy) merchants and foreigners simply can’t be trusted.

Clearly the essence of this race’s characteristics is now being shaped by the mind of the user without ever having to see a piece of information to confirm it, but it is all true.

That is incredible character design at work, it’s refreshing and new to players well acquainted with the Tamrielic races; and it is easily identifiable and unique to players unfamiliar with the series.

Seeing how the different races of Skyrim benefit from the design creating more complete identities; it follows that the developers have more to work with. They can address racial issues in game, and they do! Sort of…

Throughout the game there are several cases in the game where NPCs are attacked or berated based on whether they have hair, fur, pointy ears, or scales. These moments are great. They illustrate further a world filled with strife over politics, religion, and race that is tearing asunder.

However these sequences are squandered, the player can seldom interact with the exchanges either by entering the conversation (and telling the bigots to sit and spin on a sharp icicle) or knocking some manners into the racial ignoramuses (which currently has no street justice value because the guards arrest you just the same). So the racism in Skyrim is only seen and not felt.

If you are going to develop rich cultural identities and races, and if you are going to bring racism into the game (for better or worse): make it impactful.  Don’t make racism a set piece for the player to watch and quietly comment,

‘Aww, that’s terrible! That mean drunk is yelling at that strange cat person.’

What needs to happen is the player needs to interact with the racism.

If the player character is a Khajiit, I want the game to restrict me from entering Whiterun just like the rest of the Khajiit merchants camped outside the city walls. Make me work for it. If the Khajiit player wants to enter the city, force them to pay off the guards, sneak in, or get the Jarl’s attention for an audience. Make an adventure of proving yourself  as above the racist element in the game. There already exist parts of the game where you must work hard in order to gain acceptance, why not add a new dimension to that? (This has been found to take place when non-Orc players encounter Orc encampments).

Challenging the player empowers the player.

Make it so that when the Khajiit thief I am playing is finally made a Thane of a Skyrim Hold; I can approach the city guard who denied me entrance and chew him out, or simply smile as he says ‘Good day, Thane! Anything you need?’ (Thane is an official title in Skyrim, equivalent to a Lordship or a Knighthood)

Furthermore, extend this racism to companions. My first time entering Windhelm I encountered two Nords harassing a Dunmer, blaming her for one thing or another because she was a Dark Elf. At the time my companion was the Dunmer priestess of Azura (Aranea Ienith). She sat there doe eyed and spoke not a word of it.

This is where BethSoft can take a page out of the book of Bioware. Common in BioWare RPG’s is when companions in your party challenge your moral standing if you overlook some sort of violence or discrimination.

Why didn’t my companion jump to the defense of her fellow Dunmer and harangue the racist Nords? Or couldn’t she at the very least have said something to me about her discomfort in a place where Dunmer hate was unabated. If upon entering a city I am stopped and asked to leave my unwanted companion outside, that’s going to make me angry, I am going to right that wrong.

Making conscious decisions regarding race makes the ugliness of the racism more apparent. It sticks the issue in the face of the player and tells them to deal with it. In the real world to deny that racism exists, is idiotic. If that is so, why not use a safe medium like video games to educate about the nature of racism? If I had to choose between forcing someone to be the victim of real life bigotry or in-game bigotry, I would certainly choose the latter if the same understanding could be gained. I don’t believe the experience of real life bigotry could ever be captured in game, nor should it. But if players can be shown the vileness of racism and discrimination in a game, while adding depth to its racial and cultural environment; shouldn’t we do that?

By forcing the player into racist scenarios you’re going to get them thinking about racism. Chances are whatever they choose to do about in-game racism will stick in their minds after they finish their play through.

Making Skyrim more racist actually creates a environment that makes players intolerant of racism.

...Then they seek out that racism. And kill it with fire that they spew from their hands.

A victory worth noting.

If you follow the Supreme Court (or video games for that matter) like I do; then you have probably seen the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned a California law which criminalized the sale of violent video games to minors. Found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf

For those of you who see the 19 page wall of text and feel an overwhelming sense of confusion, that’s what a Supreme Court opinion looks like. For those of you who fancy yourselves constitutionalists, and feel qualified to weigh in on such matters as Roe V. Wade, McCulloh v. Maryland, and US v. Nixon, and you are still unfamiliar with Supreme Court opinions. I urge you to restrain from weighing in on such matters until you familiarize yourself with such opinions.

But I digress. The reason I bring up this court case is because it is an issue that is very salient in my mind. The reasoning is two-fold. Firstly, it is of great importance to the video game industry, which is of great importance to me. Secondly, this decision impacts the political issue of censorship, which has always been an issue of contention in my mind. Censorship is in many ways more offensive than any piece of literature or art. Censorship is the act of preventing the dissemination of ideas. Pundits can sputter and guffaw, but by restricting people from accessing an intellectual work, simply put, you are preventing the spread of ideas and knowledge. For anyone who has drawn breath for more than a decade, one truth should probably have become clear in their mind: truth is bred by diversity and varied perspective. Human beings are unique. Unique in two fashions; first that humans possess a level of diversity found in few other species on earth, second that no two humans are identical. Even identical twins who share the same DNA at birth will in every case have traits, behaviors, and ideas that their kin do not share. The sheer diversity of our race is what engenders our intellect and success. From the multiplicity of people in our population, each person provides a unique perspective that forces those exposed to it to reexamine their own preconceptions. Many people avoid different perspectives to shield themselves from being forced to evaluate their beliefs and ideas on any other basis than that of the gospel truth. This simple fact is why censorship is so dangerous; it places blinders on our minds. Censorship eliminates options, alternatives, and opportunities. Censors control information and release it as they see fit, controlling and manipulating the minds of a culture, and in every case: hindering progress and understanding. As someone who tries to seek understanding wherever it may hide; being told by anyone that certain areas are off limits to my exploration: it is not only an affront to my intelligence, it is an affront to my judgment. And I don’t suffer such insult lightly.

I often invoke the Framers of the United States in argument. I don’t do so out of some misplaced and misunderstood sense of patriotism. I do so out of a strong understanding of what ideas were used as the framework for our country and government. Ideas that I identify strongly with as truths and understandings that are timeless.

Censorship plays a role in our foundation, that is impossible to avoid, and it plays an enormous part in our history. These United States of America were founded on the principles of self determination, republicanism, and liberty of the enlightenment. These principles were not discovered by our founders, make no mistake they did not sit down at a pub on night and over a pitcher of ale think up the idea of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. Far from it, these ideas and concepts were extrapolated from reading the works and writings of (in)famous European political thinkers. The reason I visit this is because of the one simple fact, most of these works were squelched as seditious. The writings upon which our country was founded were in heavily censored across Europe. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government were published anonymously so that he would not suffer blowback from his writing. Such works provided a perspective and understanding that disrupted the governmental and cultural mores of the time. They threatened established understandings, and for that these ideas were smothered, slandered, and hidden.

To say that our country was built around concepts that were both unpopular and heavily suppressed says something about These United States. Firstly, it says ‘we do things our way, fuck the rest’ (because that just how America does things). Secondly, it makes it clear that our country is founded on a basis of free and unrestricted expression of thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.

As if you needed further proof the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Keeping in mind the legal, intellectual, and historical basis of a country that casts out censorship as a dangerous practice; we move onto the cultural and societal underpinnings of censorship.

One of the primary arguments in favor of censorship stems from our societies necessity to defend children’s innocence. Now this is a lofty and understandable goal. It’s born of a very real threat against the future of our society. A child that suffers severe emotional trauma has a stronger chance of developing undesirable behavior. As a communal society, the emotional and behavior state of children will be reflected as that generation matures. As a result, our society sees fits to dictate what information will be filtered through and ultimately reach our children. At first this would seem like a reasoned approach to the problem. Unfortunately, modern American society is nearest establishment to a direct democracy in existence in America. What that ultimately means is that the passions and urges of society will ultimately dictate the legislation of a societal problem. This should immediately be raising some flags. Our country was founded in republican ideals for explicit purposes, as Publius stated in the federalist papers,

“The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.”

The Federalists were ever vigilant against the dangers of popular passion ruling a country. They acknowledged the duplicitous nature of liberty: that it breeds ideas that groups and factions are drawn to, and they are the first target of said groups and factions. The united passions of or population would ultimately determine what ideas are considered acceptable, and as stated before, it is often the unpopular ideas that are those most important. But why do so many people with such fickle an understanding of right and wrong have control the sanctions on information. So if the majority cannot be trusted to address the issue of childhood innocence; who then? Does the government appoint some sort of moral official? This official dictates the moral understandings of a generation and implements policies around that? Tyranny of one can be dangerous. So what possible alternative could there be? Who will care for our children?

What about Parents? Shouldn’t the direct guardians of a child be responsible for that child’s well-being and safety? If a parent had the faculty and ability to feed a child, but chose not to, they would be charged with negligence and child abuse. Should the same not be true for willful abandonment of their other parental duties? Is it not their job to evaluate and decide what sources of information a child has access to? If a parent is competent enough to raise a child, their judgment should be sound enough to filter the information that reaches their child. And as such there should be no fear having that child develop behavioral issues or other conditions society fears. But this does not seem to be an issue in America, it seems to be an ever increasing trend that parents don’t really want to ‘parent’ their children. I have had large amounts direct exposure to parents who are utterly unwilling to step up and fulfill their parental duties and roles. They would sooner pass the buck to someone else, have a stranger raise their child, and then complain and cry foul when their child emerges from adolescence a troubled and confused person. It sickens me to see these same parents turn around and clamor for federal and state level censorship.

I will digress momentarily to make something abundantly clear. Video games are quickly becoming one of the most important forms of art in the modern age. It taps into a near unlimited creative and artistic power, that is the power of control. One thing that can be said of nearly every major art form: literature, film, tv, fine art (drawing, sculpting, painting, photography), even architecture. All of these forms are passive. In almost every case the piece of art does not allow, or does not change according to, user input. Art already expresses and attracts a multitude of varying perspectives and opinion. Imagine if you will, that every time you went to the Uffizi that guests of the museum could mold their David. Change its proportions and intricacies, now not only would each viewer see a different view of the same work, but they would actually see different versions and mutations of the same work. The pure power of possibility is incredible. It is why video games are such an interesting topic of conversation to me, because every person can bring a different opinion or perspective to the table, not simple because they are people with varying interpretations of the same experience, but instead because they actually experienced something genuinely different.

That is why I make a point to fully play through games with divergent and branching narratives/gameplay. As an individual to be able to compare two different experiences of the same piece is a truly unique practice.

Simply put video games are an art form that is struggling desperately to be leveled with its artistic predecessors. Art has always been given staunch protection under the first amendment of the US Constitution as a form of self-expression. Censorship and the nature of close-minded people is subduing the advance of a truly unique form of expression and exploration. Returning back to the genesis of this article, the Supreme Court ruled that video games as an creative electronic medium were granted the same protections as other forms of art and expression. This was a resounding success. The Supreme Court has, perhaps inadvertently, leveled video games with its artistic predecessors. Not to mention they have defeated redundant and restrictive laws. It is worth noting that while it is not illegal to sell violent (or MA rated games) to minors, it is against the policies of every major distributor of electronic media. If someone were to legally purchase a MA video game, they would most certainly have to be of the proper age, and that is a testament to the power and domain of the private sector. A society can influence the private sector to construct the necessary barriers and filters, without burdening the entire country with unnecessary legislation. Finally, the Supreme Court succeeded in batting down a legislative piece of censorship and allowed for the continued open access of ideas and information.

Certainly a victory worth noting.

Why Streamlining is a Dirty Word

The videogame business is one of the largest financial markets in existence. As a result, major publishers are focused primarily on one thing: profit. Allow me to say, there is nothing wrong with that. This is not some soapbox speech about the dangers of greed. However, there is a very distinct downside to the profit-mindedness that dominates the upper management of the video game industry. There is a common saying that “100 failures are paid for by 1 success”. Anyone who works in the industry can attest this. As a result of this reality, companies try desperately to get that ‘1 success’ more than once. They will take a game that had strong profit margins and capitalize on such a success. This means: sequels, trilogies, serials, episodes, DLC’s, expansions, and more games.

For the fans of a successful franchise this is, more often than not, a welcome outcome. They get the refreshing opportunity to keep playing a game they love, but with a new paint job; and maybe even a new engine (though experience has proven that unlikely). I will be the first to admit, this can be the greatest experience for a gamer. I personally have played through every Half Life game and expansion more than three times a piece. That type of gameplay and replay value is unparalleled. So for most, new content for an existing franchise is great news.

There is however, a dark side to the franchising process.

I own all but one of the Command and Conquer games.

I have logged several days of play on all of them. All of them save one, the final installation, Command and Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight. A little more about CNC4: CNC4 was the first serious alteration of game play to the tried and true formula of the series since its inception. I am not someone who is resistant to such changes. When game developers become complacent with their ‘tried and true’ formula you can get the same game experience repackaged with nothing new (see Call of Duty).The change in CNC gameplay shifted the series away from base building and the archetypical economy system of the previous Command and Conquer games, to a more agile, specific, and non-construction style of play. Wherein previous games it would behoove the player to build up a sprawling base with varying types of defenses (SAM sites, sentry guns, guard units); CNC4 removed that game element entirely. Instead, the player had one single MCV (mobile construction vehicle) and from that vehicle (which remains immovable when in build mode) the player builds all of their units, makes all their upgrades and attaches all their defenses to this one central vehicle. Additionally, the economy system in the game was stripped out, leaving only a population capacity number as the system of unit limitations. In CNC4 a player has a population cap, which grows progressively through the match (based on a number of variables); it determines how many troops on can have at a time on the battlefield (smaller units counting as 1, larger units counting as >1). In other CNC games, players were forced to mine resources for money, and spend money on units.

I have described the intricacies of CNC4 for a very specific reason, and it is not because I really love boring people with the idiosyncrasies of a cerebral game like CNC; I do so because the gameplay of CNC4 was bad enough that I did not play past the first few missions in the game, and have not played it once since the week I bought it. The gameplay shortcomings are a direct result of what I refer to as streamlining, which is what I mean to address in this discussion.

Streamlining: is the process through which a game is developed in such a way that removes higher level game play complexity, in favor of a simpler, more understandable gameplay that appeals to the largest number of people. This is becoming a practice that is more and more popular as game franchises become larger. Now that Call of Duty has once again shattered is previous media release sales record with the sale of Black Ops, companies see the profitability of a simpler game that everyone wants to play.

Streamlining is a dangerous issue, because it sends a clear message to the fan base from the publisher: “we are moving in a direction that will net as more money, and it may be at the expense of the hardcore gamers enjoyment.” That may sound harsh, but it is the reality of the situation. Developers and publishers will streamline games if they feel it will increase the popularity of the game, and they do so with the knowledge that gamers who are more dedicated to the franchise will purchase it out of loyalty, even if the gameplay experience they want isn’t there. This is an indirect abuse of that segment of a fan base that is, in my eyes, an unacceptable business move.

(Warning: for those of you put to sleep by the in depth CNC4 explanation before, there is more to come).

Returning to the example of CNC4 I will demonstrate how streamlining damaged the overall game play of the game, because before I never really explained why the changes were so bad. Unlike many people, I don’t make judgments without good reason, and I certainly don’t share them unless I can support them.

If you play Real Time Strategy games, and you have played them for a while, you may have similar tastes to mine. Which is that I crave a game that will challenge my mind, I want a game that if I make a mistake or bungle a critical operation, the game is going to bend me over the desk and teach me a lesson in proper fucking. Now that’s not to say I want to play a game that if I look away from the screen for a moment, when I turn back my base is not a crater filled with freshly toasted Marine corpses. I find that most real time strategy games involve, well, strategy. CNC4’s gameplay changes remove very specific and nuanced strategic options, without most people noticing. For instance, the removal of an economy has disrupted the power of certain units and the balance of the game. Normally larger units would be more difficult to acquire because they were more expensive, which meant you had to find more resources ,  and in order to do so you would spread yourself out and wait to gather the necessary resources. (Notice that buying bigger guns will leave you economy stretched, as well as you units in order to protect your advancing resource gathering units). With the removal of an economy, player can sit still and crank out units as fast as their production queue can cycle, and if they don’t have the necessary population requirements  (meaning they have too many units to get a new units), fuck it: send some units in a suicidal attack at the enemy.

This eliminates any strategy that would involve: A) frugality and skillful resource gathering, B) the tactic of attacking an opponent’s resources gathers in order to cripple their economy and unit production (which is a very effective tactic in earlier games), or C) giving units special abilities that earn a player cash so that units can have multipurpose roles in the game, instead of blunt weapons of increasing size, power, and range.

If I haven’t beaten that horse enough, let me know.

Moving on to base building and defensive structures; now that CNC4 had removed those pesky ‘buildings’ that had plagued their games for so long they had allowed the player the freedom to willfully ignore any type of planning and strategy, and instead encourage them to throw as many units at a single vehicle as possible and whittle away its monstrous health total in order to win. In previous games players would be forced to make large bases with structures that had unique purposes such as power plants, troop barracks, vehicle factories, airports, resource centers, and defensive structures. Each of these buildings represented a vulnerability to the owner of the structure. If a power structure was damaged, sabotaged, or destroyed, it would compromise the base defenses (which require power) leaving a base defenseless. It a troop barracks was similarly destroyed, a player would need to rebuild a new one in order to marshal forces for an attack or counterattack. If the resource gathering center was destroyed a player would be entirely unable to collect resources, making the build of defenses, the repair of building, the recruiting of new units; utterly impossible. A death blow to be sure. However in CNC4 players have one central structure. They can see their enemies coming from a mile off, and none of their production or research can be halted unless the entire structure is destroyed. But hey, at least CNC4 is simple, right? It is worth noting that this reinforces bad behavior on the part of the player. In most CnC games, because a player has an expansive base, if an opponent is clever, they will attack from the front with a large force, and send a secondary force to the rear in the hopes that in the heat of battle they wouldn’t realize that you just destroyed their power generators and now the base defenses are offline allowing you to liberally apply live ordnance to their defenseless structures.

As demonstrated, much of the higher level tactics which experienced and skilled players exploited in order to attain victory are gone. Now it is simply a matter of how can you best maximize your build queue to shit out the best anti-tank, anti-vehicle units and go destroy the opponent’s base before they do the same to you. The endless back and forth with little to no progression bores me to no end. Not to mention the fact that the ‘mech’ units in the game are horridly overpowered, and can wade into armies of enemies lay waste to them single handedly. Your only hope at winning is building a handful of engineers (units that can capture buildings) to quickly repair and capture downed ‘mechs’ bringing them back into the fight on your side. Then using these newly acquired weapons roll up on the enemy like AT-AT’s on Hoth, slaughtering ground troops as they scatter trying to find a new pair of pants.

So, CNC4 has succeeded in appealing to a more casual audience by eliminating the need for an advanced understanding of military tactics. They have added some comically overpowered units to satisfy the megalomaniac in the common gamer. But is it a good game? Was the streamlining of gameplay beneficial? Well the game sold more than its predecessor. But after its first 2 weeks, sales for the game tapered off very quickly as a result of poor feedback and reviews. But as far as I can tell, in talking with longtime fans of the series, and in my own opinion: I have found nothing but displeasure with the latest CNC installation.

Mass Effect is an interesting case of streamlining a video game. Mass Effect was a truly interesting genre of game; it was one part team tactics game, one part Bioware role playing game, and one part third person shooter. The result was something that was unrivalled in polish, uniqueness, and scale. Mass Effect was a resounding success. Mass Effect won solid praise from critics and performed well in sales. It spawned a whole new universe to which Bioware’s phenomenal writers and designers could sink more time into. I admired and enjoyed Mass Effect unlike most games I have ever played. It had a phenomenal role playing basis, a character building system with many different options for players to experiment with powers and skills. A robust inventory/loot system like that of the Neverwinter Nights and knights of the old republic games that preceded it. A fluid and intense combat system with easy and quick teammate control, cover to cover running and gunning.

Mass Effect 2 had many of these things, but not all. Mass Effect 2 suffered from a streamlining process in the interest of making it a bigger hit than Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 shared with its predecessor: a story that is engrossing and clever ( I expect no less from Bioware), characters that polarized players (which is always good), a strong combat system with great cover systems, teammates who didn’t frequently run into my line of fire or get stuck on level geometry (which I can’t say for many games). But one thing Mass Effect was missing on the second go around the block was the finer points of the RPG system. Yes, you still assumed the role of Commander Shepard, the oddly androgynous, possibly bisexual, destroyer of Geth and worlds alike. You got the typical dichotomous Good (paragon) or Evil (renegade) choices. So yeah you were role playing. But the skill progression was culled down to 4 basic skills. Excuse me Bioware, but what the fuck? Isn’t that the point of class and skill specialization, to have party members have skills that fit a specified role? So you would have to mix and match party members to fit what mission you were on. No, in Mass Effect 2 you have a party full of people with a lot of these shared skills, as a result what you get is a party full of people who claim to be the jack-of-all-skills. So my play through Mass Effect had me using every character in my party. While my play through of Mass Effect 2 had me using Thane, Garrus, and Grunt simply because I liked those characters more than the others, and not because they actually fit what I was trying to do; because frankly it didn’t matter.

Not to mention that the inventory was ripped out entirely. Upgrades and weapons were now purchased with resources garnered from a mining mini game that was little more than an endless game of radar based whack-a-mole. Seriously? I know the Mako driving sequences in Mass Effect one were a little tedious, and the Mako handled like Shepard was in a perpetual state of drunkenness. But instead of the world exploration that existed in Mass Effect, allowing players some fun as they bounced and bombed around on different planets, they put in a system where you look at the same dull planet sphere that rotates. You stare at some sensors, at the appropriate time you click a button a pointless animation happens, your resource numbers are incremented accordingly, repeat that until you deplete the planet of resources or run out of probes. Oh and if you run out of probes, just go to a refueling station, buy more for a nominal cost, and return to rape more planets. Speaking quickly to the probes, why not just give me unlimited probes instead of wasting my time flying to and from a refueling station for probes that are so cheap that I never found myself in a situation where I couldn’t buy a full box of 30. Using these newfound resources you can upgrade the 2 weapons you have: with only a narrow set of possibilities, all of which can stack on top of each other, never having to compromise one or the other.

One of my favorite parts of Mass effect was tricking out Garrus’s and Wrex’s guns to meet very specific and deadly roles, so they could rip through enemies I softened up with my biotics. So naturally when I popped in Mass Effect 2, the first thing I did when reaching the Normandy, I opened my inventory to see what I had. I found that I simply had 3 weapons that were restricted to my class. Not only that but I wouldn’t get more than 2 different weapons of any weapon type (pistol, smg, shotgun, sniper, etc.).  Gone were the days when as an Adept I could stupidly wield a sniper rifle and rattle off completely useless suppressive fire so that Wrex could maneuver to melee range and give some unsuspecting Geth a primer course on the futility of krogan mating. It might have been an utterly idiotic tactic I used, but I was allowed to do it…

But isn’t that what a game is? I see a game as developers giving you a world with a set of constraints and saying ‘here go crazy’. Now it would seem that this philosophy has an added caveat of “go crazy, but don’t do anything stupid”.

And that is the best way I can describe the difference between ME1 an ME2. The latter is idiot-proof, whereas ME1 fully embraced the idiots and clowns of the game community (embraced them and then promptly destroyed them). Now these gripes may seem like they don’t impact the overall game, and you would be right to think so. Hell, I think so. I played through ME2 three times. It’s a great game, and it saved itself from itself through all the ways in which it improved upon ME: the writing, conversations, combat movement, teammate AI, space travel, witty party banter, and atmosphere of the game all saw marked advancement. Overall, they successfully distracted my critical eye from the flaws of the game. (They could have just used shiny objects. That would have worked too).

I bring up Mass Effect 2 because it is an interesting case, it strides the middle ground of what iterative game development provides. It provides a wealth of refined mechanics and embellished stories. But it also provides a huge opportunity for developers and publishers to slim down a game so much, that they turn off their most loyal fan base because they have betrayed the ethos of a franchise. There are only a handful of examples where this has happened. But those examples are only in the past few years, and the number of these failed attempts at streamlining is slowly growing.

This leads us to the ultimate question:

Where is the line between fiscal decision making and truly good game development choices?

I haven’t found it yet. It keeps shifting with each new sequel that gets squeezed out every year or so. My head is not buried so deeply in the sand that I can’t enjoy a game that has modified and optimized a few game features, as in the case of Mass Effect 2. But I’m not blind enough to drool over a game that destroys the foundation of its namesake in the effort of appealing to a more ‘casual’ or ‘social’ buyer.

If you have other strong examples, or any feedback: throw a comment down below.

Who am I?

I’m a third year Video Game Development and Design Major at Rochester Institute of Technology. I have grown up around computers and I love technology. I have dedicated myself to developing a career in the video game industry in any postion. While my major focusses towards programming and development, I like to think that my skills are not only in coding, but in other elements of desgin. I am experienced with level design, 3D modelling, animation, different design methodologies and writing.

Aditionally I am deeply interested in music. I find music therapeutic. I take any and all oppurtunities to see live concerts. I find that so long as the act your seeing isnt a type of music you dislike: you will have a great time. I am 20 years old and I have been to roughly 18 different shows, and seen approximately 55 different artists perform.

Video Games are the career and field of study I have chosen, they are of near infinite interest to me. With so many possibilites and facets that the medium of interactive media possesses, its hard not to become involved. I find myself drawn to action games. This includes: First Person Shooters, Third Person Shooters, Stealth, Real Time Strategy, Turn Based Strategy, Flight Simuilators, Role Playing, and some Racing games. After playing thousands of games, it appears to me that action games (such as those listed above) lend themselves to better plot and character development.

As a child I was drawn toward ‘fun’ games. These were the games with fun mechanics and good hooks. As I grew older I saw that I wanted to play more ‘good’ games. Now that does not mean ‘fun’ and ‘good’ games are mutually exclusive. Often there is much over lap. But I started to see more and more the difference between games that you get hooked on for days, then the moment you finish you can even remember the character names; and games that really pull you in and involve you in a story that sticks with you. I try to design, develop, and play ‘good’ games. Games that when the credits roll the player sits there and watches them; not because they want to see the names, but because they physically can’t move: they are dumbstruck.

A little bit about me personally, I am deeply political: so much so that I have often considered running for public office later in life. I find myself in the extreme corner of classical liberalism. That puts me in line with the current Libertarian Party in the US. However, I subscribe to the theory of Rational Anarchy as described below:

“A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world . . . aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.

Before I committed to RIT, and the game design program there, I was seriously considering going to school for Political Science. I have always been someone who was deeply interested in history. As a kid, if I wasn’t watching cartoons; I was watching the latest special on military history on The History Channel. My favorite recreational reading has been historical fiction and military fiction books. As a result I ended up studying a lot of American history, much of which involves the creation of our nation and the foundation of our government. I began reading the writings of our founding fathers and revolutionary visionaries: Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Jay, Hamilton, Adams, and others. While reading these teachings I saw allusions to older works of political theory and practice. References to: Montesquieu, Locke, Burke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Voltaire. I started reading their works. I found that often the political rhetoric within these books was more enjoyable and biting than most modern comedy. From that point I was hooked. I read almost every piece of legitimate politcal writing I come across.